Sir Jeremy Heywood and John Manzoni have spoken out to defend the progress of civil service reform, following a wide-ranging and critical speech given by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude on Tuesday.
Maude claimed the civil service has a “bias to inertia” and “suffers from institutional complacency”.
Discussing the future of the civil service as part of a lecture series hosted by the speaker of the House of Commons, he said he had been lied to by officials, and that reforms started while he was in office were being quietly rolled back by “departmental barons”.
Responding to the speech, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood said: "At a time when the civil service is working flat out to support the government in delivering a successful Brexit, its many manifesto commitments and its portfolio of major projects – with the smallest headcount since the Second World War – it is a pity that Lord Maude has chosen to attack the organisation and its dedicated staff with a wholly inaccurate portrayal of what is widely regarded as one of the world's most effective and efficient civil services.”
He continued: "Since [Maude] left the Cabinet Office in 2015, the civil service reform programme that he helped to create has been implemented with vigour, sharply improving our commercial, financial, and digital capacity."
John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, said: "Far from stopping reform we are deepening and accelerating. The civil service is undertaking a huge programme of fundamental transformation to deliver sustainable change and equip the civil service for the post-Brexit world."
Lord Maude was cabinet office minister between 2010 and 2015, during which he instigated a range of reforms, from centralising key functions to changing the way permanent secretaries are appointed and creating the Government Digital Service.
Speaking in parliament, he said officials were now “fighting back” against many of these changes.
“The mantra is: ‘We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments.’ When you hear those words you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under,” he said.
In his speech, Maude particularly focused on the reforms that put in place cross-government leadership for key professions such as digital and finance, noting that the finance function is now being led by a departmental finance director rather than a “dedicated full-time leader”.
“Imperceptibly, inch by inch, with a control dropped here or not enforced there, the old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging, with nothing to restrain the old unreconstructed behaviours from taking hold once more.”
The move to functional leadership was especially resisted by the Treasury, Maude said, "which in the main with the exception of Danny Alexander was at best uninterested in and sometimes actively hostile to our entire programme of efficiency savings".
Although he said he was not attacking individuals, Maude claimed that officials often mislead ministers, and sought to cover up failures and ignore ministerial directions.
“On two specific occasions I was told that the cost of implementing a change, in each case to civil servants’ own employment terms and conditions, was literally 100 times what turned out to be the actual cost,” he said. “Quite often I would be told that the law precluded a particular course. More often than not it was not true.”
He continued that ministerial decisions were not always heeded: “On one occasion I asked a cross-departmental group of officials why a Cabinet Committee’s very clear decision had simply been ignored. The answer? 'We didn’t think it was a very strong mandate'. What on earth do you need? A Papal Bull?”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said: “Ask any civil servant and they'll tell you that reform in the civil service started long before Lord Maude arrived at the cabinet office and has continued after his departure."
He continued: "Lord Maude describes a civil service that I, civil servants, and I'm sure many ministers, will simply not recognise. The civil service, like all large organisations, has institutional failings and frustrating bureaucracies, but to paint a picture of these as commonplace and routine is disingenuous, and perhaps reflects more on Lord Maude's own fraught relationship with individuals.
"The civil service continues to deliver more for less and is blessed with a talented and committed cadre of public servants. It is those civil servants who actually delivered the £50bn of efficiencies Lord Maude is keen to talk about – all while maintaining the quality of vital public services.
"As a minister with a strong reputation for reform, Lord Maude's increasingly personal attacks on the senior civil service only serve to undermine his legacy and cannot be excused by adding in a throwaway caveat about not attacking individuals."
Maude also criticised the predominance of policy professionals in leadership roles, saying that many government failures could have been avoided if ministers had been given more access to operational experts.
He called for a new model at the top of government to address this challenge, saying that existence of a full-time chief executive should become a permanent feature of the civil service, and this person should lead all the operational, commercial and technical functions while the cabinet secretary focuses only on policy professionals.
The role of head of the civil service, he continued, should alternate between the chief executive and the cabinet secretary.
“Without something like this, which would be revolutionary in Whitehall terms, I see no prospect of parity of esteem [between policy and operational professions] ever happening,” he said.
“And without parity of esteem there is no prospect that the technical experts, whose advice on the implementation of policy is essential, will ever be in a position to make their advice count before, as it is so often the case, it is too late.”