Francis Maude: Senior civil servants ‘tried to undermine reform plan’

Former Cabinet Office minister says his perception of the civil service went “downhill a lot” during the coalition government

By Richard Johnstone

07 Apr 2017

Lord Francis Maude has claimed that his civil service reforms in the last parliament were undermined by senior figures in Whitehall – who tried to get the Labour party to oppose the changes being pushed by the Cabinet Office.

In comments to the Institute for Government as part of the think tank’s 'Ministers Reflect' series, Maude said his reforms, which included new rules on procurement, digital projects, staff appraisal and recruitment introduced between 2010 and 2015, often had wide political support.

There was “virtually no partisan content in what I did”, he said of the changes he spearheaded – which also included reforms, since reversed, to create extended ministerial offices. These were intended to allow ministers to bring in external advisers as temporary, non-political officials.

In his comments to the IfG, Maude said there was “a lot of enthusiasm across the piece” from other political parties for his changes, which remained, despite senior Whitehall figures' attempts to resist reforms.

“We had this rather marvellous and probably rarely to be repeated historical chance that each of the three major parties had current or recent experience of government,” he said.

“So I had a lot of support on civil service reform from Labour. We found that sometimes there were things we were doing, where oddly, the leadership of the civil service went to my Labour counterparts to try and undermine what we were doing, which was a bit shocking. These things can happen.

"But they got rebuffed, actually. Because Labour, for quite a lot of that time, thought they had a really good chance of winning and frankly they wanted us to do the hard, heavy lifting of making the system work better, so they would inherit something better than they had worked with. So that was very positive and on a lot of the stuff we did – digital, open data, social investment – these were not politically contentious.”

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|n his comments, Maude said the biggest achievements of his reform agenda were in digital, where the introduction of the Government Digital Service saw the UK become a "world leader in the space of five years".

He highlighted that although GDS contained “a lot of mainstream civil servants, career civil servants”, it was under a ‘greenfield’ operation under the first GDS chief Mike Bracken, and so “separate and without the Whitehall culture”.

“So we did that, but I think if it had been clear when we set it up that it was basically going to supplant the existing CIO [Chief Information Officer] network, I think there would have been a lot more resistance,” Maude noted.

Treasury resistance

However, according to Maude, the Treasury was at times “actively hostile” to elements of the cross-government efficiency drive he launched as part of the coalition government’s deficit reduction scheme.

The Efficiency and Reform Group, formed in the Cabinet Office in 2010 to drive improvements to purchasing and property use across Whitehall, helped save over £50bn cumulatively over five years, he said.

This was “a crucial part” of making the coalition's deficit reduction programme politically sustainable through reducing the reliance on increasing taxes or cutting services. “And the huge disappointment was that the Treasury was just either not interested, or actively hostile,” he said. “I still don’t really understand why.”

Civil servant job moves

Reflecting on his time in the Cabinet Office, Maude highlighted that there remained a problem in ensuring there was continuity around major policy areas and initiatives in the civil service.

“I think you need to have more stasis in the civil service, less rotation, more people staying put, building deep knowledge, being able to be promoted within the same area in a way a normal, sane organisation would do – instead of people being rotated as soon as they know anything about it,” he said. “Rotation in civil servants is much more damaging than rotation in ministers and there is far too much of it and it is totally random. And we, I think, pretty solidly, failed to deal with that, although we went on about it from the outset. We didn’t even really succeed in changing the appalling thing that senior responsible owners of major projects were never really seeing things through to a sensible break point.”

This is why he was keen on the extended ministerial offices, so that the tenure of officials is more closely linked to that of ministers.

His view of the civil service “went downhill a lot” between 2010 and 2015. “I have said in the past that the idea of a permanent, impartial civil service is an excellent one, that it has served the country well and that all you need is good ministers to make it do what you want it to do," he said.

“However, I was sadly disillusioned by the extent of sheer inertia and obstruction, often passive but sometimes active obstruction in the civil service. The worst thing is when civil servants don’t give advice, saying ‘minister, this is a really stupid thing to do’ and rather go along with it but then don’t do it. That is just intolerable and there was far too much of that. So for me it was a disillusioning experience.”

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