'It’s a very big organisation and there are good and bad people': New Cabinet Office minister Damian Green appraises Whitehall

New minister responsible for civil service has praise for officials but also complains about 'ropey' delivery 

Damian Green. Photo credit: PA

By Richard Johnstone

13 Jun 2017

Damian Green has been appointed to a beefed-up Cabinet Office minister role in Theresa May’s post-election reshuffle. Green, who will also serve as de facto deputy prime minister as May's first secretary of state, will be responsible for taking forward proposed Whitehall reforms, including the Government Transformation Strategy.

So what does Green think of Whitehall – and what might his priorities for the civil service be?

Civil Service World examined his comments to the Institute for Government as part of the think tank's Ministers Reflect series. Here, we bring together some choice extracts from Green's 2015 IfG interview following his departure from Theresa May’s Home Office after spells as immigration minister (2010-2012) and policing and criminal justice minister (2012-14).

Praise for the quality of the civil service…

Green reveals an appreciation of the quality of civil servants across government, both in and out of Whitehall.

“Well the quality was… I mean, in a way I thought, surprisingly high. I would visit immigration offices where people were taking life and death decisions for people being paid less than £20,000 a year and doing it conscientiously, and as far as one could see, most of the time quite well. If you like, the old ethos prevails more than I might have thought, particularly in heavily unionised areas, but it’s like any organisation. It’s a very big organisation and there are good and bad people.”

…but delivery was often ‘ropey’

But he reveals a frustration with elements of implementation and the civil service career path, after being told by one civil servant in his private office that “nobody ever got to be a permanent secretary by being able to run a benefits office efficiently”.

“My overriding conclusion is that the sort of image of the British civil service as being ‘a Rolls-Royce’ in the old cliché does apply in terms of policy, and the people who are at the top-end or going up to the top-end giving policy advice. Absolutely, they are world-class.

“[In terms of] running things, the British government is quite poor; large organisations that do repetitive things all the time and therefore employ people at relatively low wages, who are doing important things and who are not managed very effectively – I’ve never worked at DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] but I suspect that’s part of the problem with the benefits system, it was certainly the problem with the immigration system. It’s a huge transactional organisation the UKBA [UK Border Agency], as it was, until we broke it up, was about the size of Sainsbury’s in terms of the number of transactions it has to transact. And you ask them to do an impossible job because what you’re saying is ‘We want you to provide customer service in a friendly way to about 99.5% of your customers, and we want you just to say ‘no’ and if necessary arrest the other 0.5% of your customers’. And you’ve got to know, often as they walk towards somebody at a gate, at an airport, whether they’re one or the other, and we’ll try and provide systems to support that.

“People will put up with things they disagree with, if they think you’re competent, and to refer to my point about the policy: advice is very good, the implementation is often pretty ropey. Actually, people care at least as much if not more about the implementation; competence is the sort of bedrock of anything else, and that’s what we spend not enough of our time thinking about.”


Frustrations with Whitehall

Green is asked by the IfG what he found most frustrating about being minister, which could indicate possible areas of interest for reform. But as the think tank's programme director Jill Rutter has highlighted, it is unclear if the expanded role will leave much time for traditional Cabinet Office responsibilities around civil service capability. 

“[The] amount of time it took from even everyone agreeing with a decision to actually seeing anything change on the ground is a number of years. And inherent in the ways of politics are that you’re very unlikely to see your successes through, and therefore I think that’s a good thing that we’ve had both the chancellor and the home secretary who are now in their sixth year [at the time of the interview in 2015], so not only can they be judged on their record but from their personal point of view they can say ‘Oh good, we did that and that’s now happening’ or ‘Gosh we did that and I wish we hadn’t!’”

Appraisals of ministers?

Green says the most effective ministers have a clear idea of what they want to achieve over a realistic timescale which can be one year or two years, and sets out the possibility of formal training and assessment of ministers – a reform hinted at in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee’s nascent civil service review published before the election.

“Well, you could incentivise it [good government] by having proper appraisal systems. We all know that ministers are hired and fired for a number of reasons, and we sort of all accept that as ‘That’s the way things are’. Well they needn’t be.

“The real revolution for politicians, if you like, would be to say ‘We’re now going to treat you like a sort of manager in a company, and we’re to have development programmes and you’re going to have training and you’re going to be assessed regularly and in an objective way and your future progress will depend on that.’ And you get to that stage and everyone says ‘Oh, it’s impossible because in the end, prime ministers will want more women or more northerners or they’ll just dislike people and want to get rid of them.’ Well, a strong-minded prime minister will say, ‘No, actually what I want is to run an effective government, and I’m going to do it that way.’

“So that will be one way to incentivise the ministers, and the other thing is all about knowledge, that all politicians should know how Whitehall works and Whitehall should know how Parliament works and why Parliament is important. And both sides of that equation seem to be me to be surprisingly deficient.”

The effectiveness of central Whitehall policy units

Given his role in the Cabinet Office is likely to be coordinating policy across Whitehall, Green’s conclusion that the Number 10 Policy Unit in the Major government, where he worked for two years from 1992, was under-powered could indicate an area for action.

“Well what I observed from the Policy Unit – because in the rather underpowered Policy Unit that we had, not because of the people but because there weren’t enough of us there – I had about three departments, so I observed that some departments tried to envelop the Policy Unit first and make them part of the policymaking process, and others more or less barred them at the door and wouldn’t let them in. So there were very different approaches that departments had.

“Left to me, I would have adopted the former approach because I observed from my experience at the Policy Unit that that worked better; it tended to be that the Prime Minister gave you an easier ride at the end of the process, but that wasn’t the way the Home Office decided to operate.”

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