Kerslake: Delay in diversity plan ‘biggest regret’

Former head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake has said his biggest regret is that the government didn’t publish a civil service diversity plan more quickly.

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

22 Sep 2014

The Cabinet Office published a fresh plan to boost diversity on 5 September, more than five years after the last diversity strategy was published by the previous government, and five months after March 2014  –  a deadline promised in the ‘One Year On’ update to the Civil Service Reform Plan in July 2013.

The Talent Action Plan has been hailed by Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood as setting out "some concrete and practical actions the civil service can take", but it has also been criticised for its lack of concrete targets and focus on gender, rather than ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation.

Asked by Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) chair Bernard Jenkin to name his biggest regret as civil service head, Kerslake (pictured) said during a hearing on 8 September: “I think my regret would be that we were not able to produce the report on diversity earlier. We could and should have.”

Kerslake also repeated his frustration with anonymous briefings in the press against officials, including himself.

Asked what he’s found most frustrating in his role, he said that “reconciling different perspectives about the way the civil service needs to change” has been challenging, adding: “The other thing I have been frustrated by is some of the ‘noises off’ and unattributable comments made in the papers about the civil service and individuals in it, which I think are very damaging and ultimately undermine trust.”

While he said the briefings are a “symptom of people thinking this is a good way of securing a particular prevailing view”, he described them as a “zero-sum game” and likened them to “the rantings of a second-rate football manager complaining about his players on the pitch”. This, he said, “undermines the sense of confidence of the civil servants and does not carry them with you in that process of change.”

However, he added that the briefings don’t reflect the atmosphere between ministers and senior civil servants generally.

“If I think of the last round of appraisals we did for permanent secretaries, the feedback from their ministers was very positive and strong, particularly for the newly-appointed permanent secretaries,” he said. “There is a huge amount of confidence and trust between ministers and permanent secretaries. We have seen some briefings that I think have not been an accurate reflection of the real world of what is happening inside government but nevertheless have been quite harmful.”

Invited by PASC member Cheryl Gillan to comment on claims made by Daily Telegraph columnist Sue Cameron that Kerslake was “treated abominably by [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude; never given the room to lead, and that you were set up to fail from the outset”, he commented: “I am not sure it would be helpful for me to comment on relationships between ministers and officials. I should abide by the rules that I think should apply to ministers on these things. I would say that Francis and I developed the Civil Service reform plan and oversaw its implementation together.”

Asked whether in his experience policies had often been “delayed or blocked by civil servants” – a claim repeatedly made by Maude – he said that while it was “difficult for me to judge”, he could not “honestly think of examples where civil servants I have worked with in [the communities department] or other departments go out of their way to block ministers.”

He added: “Their whole way of thinking is to serve the minister; that is what they want to do and what they believe in. If anything, sometimes I worry more that, in their enthusiasm to serve the minister, they do not give enough robust advice at the beginning of a problem, and then we face the consequences later.

“Of course, ministers who want to make things happen quickly - all ministers are ministers in a hurry - will sometimes perceive civil servants as blocking or being too slow, but I do not think the civil servants I have met start from that position.”

See also: Former home secretary Charles Clarke’s comments on officials blocking ministers

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