Letwin champions generalists

Civil servants should not be experts in any particular fields, but instead should be generalist administrators, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin said in a speech at the Institute for Government on Monday.

By Joshua.Chambers

19 Sep 2012

In comments that run counter to ten years of increasing professionalisation and specialisation among senior civil servants, he said: “Though they need to work closely with economists and accountants and scientists and statisticians, they aren’t themselves meant to be experts in any particular technical discipline.”

He added that “civil servants have to work with scientists, statisticians, economists, who are experts, but they are people who are generalists… I think the skill of the generalist, which I would prefer to be referred to as the skill of an administrator, is every bit as great a skill as any one of these folk.”

Letwin also characterised the mindset behind the professionalisation of the civil service as: “If you could only get everybody to be a proper gold-plated professional, in the sense of having a technical skill, all the problems in the world, probably all the problems in the universe, would quickly evaporate.”

Letwin’s comments will come as a surprise to many in the civil service professions – particularly so soon after the Civil Service Reform Plan talked up their importance. The Cabinet Office minister also appeared to dismiss moves to strengthen civil service finance skills and bring a more businesslike approach to government by toughening up departmental boards. “Though nearly all that they do depends on finance and has immense effects on business, they are not meant to be financiers or businessmen,” said Letwin, who criticised “an excessive fascination with the skills in corporations.” It’s “wrong” to think that “if only you could completely transplant these into the domain of government, all would be well,” he argued.

Letwin claimed that his vision of the civil service is fully supported by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. “The talk I have just given has been discussed with him extensively and intensively and… we agree about the need for reform to bring everyone to this ideal, but we also agree about the ideal [of generalist civil servants],” he said. “While I haven’t talked to every one of my colleagues around the Cabinet table, I rather think it would get a resounding agreement.”

Letwin was questioned by Richard Mottram, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, who said that “this is a defence, and an exposition, of a concept that has been under sustained attack for the last 50 years… If a civil servant had said what you said this evening, they would have been held up to ridicule.”

Dai Hudd, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union – the union for skilled civil servants – said “this is a major change in direction for the civil service.”

“I just do not accept that generalist skills can take you through to where you need specialists,” he said. “The idea that people of that calibre are not part of a civil service seems to me to be nonsense.”

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