When ministers’ tenures are often measured in months rather than years, constancy in government is valuable. Lord Maude first started the job of government reform in 2010. He returned to examine the Cabinet Office in 2020 and is now back again, chairing a quickfire review into governance and accountability in the civil service, due to report at the end of September just after we expect a new prime minister to take office.
Despite the short timetable, the review’s terms of reference are wide and its purpose in places ambiguous, giving Maude free rein to look at how the civil service is run and its relationship with ministers. His remit covers four areas: the prime minister’s role in managing the civil service; the balance of responsibilities between ministers and civil servants; the way internal civil service boards, committees and non-executive directors work; how cabinet decisions are recorded, transmitted and implemented.
So Lord Maude has a job on his hands, as does Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo. She is "sponsoring" the review, having been responsible for accountability in the civil service since permanent secretaries divvied up civil service reform themes in 2021.
The government is right to do this work, which was promised in the Declaration on Government Reform last year. However, the timing is very odd. Two months (mostly over the summer recess) is far too compressed a period to properly consult and reflect on the fundamental problem of accountability in government. And launching such a review at the tail-end of one government and before the next has been identified smacks of one set of ministers trying to set the terms of the debate for their potential successors.
"The government is right to do this work, which was promised in the Declaration on Government Reform last year. However, the timing is very odd"
In practice, given the timescale, Maude will shape his report around his own existing ideas. We can also assume that his remit reflects some of the bugbears of current ministers. Suella Braverman, the attorney general, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for government efficiency and the man to whom this review jointly reports, have both complained about perceived civil service "obstructionism" when implementing government decisions. Kemi Badenoch has written of her concern about whether civil servants limit who ministers speak to or the areas in which they intervene, while also noting that “there are many brilliant civil servants”.
Maude himself has in the past been interested in the extent of ministers’ powers in appointing civil servants, and how officials can be held more directly responsible for the work they do. All this may feature.
If Maude hits the right target, he could help address some of the most intractable problems in government. His priority should be making the responsibilities of ministers and civil servants clearer, and in particular defining a sphere of operation where civil servants are properly responsible, and then held to account for, certain aspects of government operation. That could include contingency planning, finance and digital standards and project management. Our proposal at the Institute for Government is to set these out in a new statute to give the civil service more clarity about its purpose and objectives.
So this is an opportunity. But there are two concerns about Maude’s terms of reference. The first is that he is not to “consider any issues relating to taxation or the public spending accountability framework or governance processes” and the review must “respect the existing rights of and accountabilities to parliament”.
Whitehall-watchers will recognise that as a classic defensive move from the Treasury. No chancellor welcomes a Cabinet Office review trespassing on his territory. But how can Maude properly consider his subject if accountability for spending is off the table? Perhaps this is a hint that the review is targeted at those ministerial frustrations, particularly on Brexit and the opportunities and trade-offs it presents, rather than more fundamental questions about improving the health and effectiveness of our government.
The second concern is on the perpetual debate about political impartiality. Maude is being asked to look at how the prime minister’s management powers are exercised under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and the Civil Service (Management Functions) Act 1992. This sounds technical but these two pieces of legislation set out and constrain ministers’ involvement in the appointment of civil servants.
It seems unlikely that Maude will launch a full assault on civil service impartiality, though we should watch developments closely. There are legislative protections in the 2010 Act that require civil service recruitment to be on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, and for civil servants to carry out their duties with objectivity and impartiality. These conditions are overseen by an independent Civil Service Commission, albeit one now led by a former politician, a mistaken appointment as I argued at the time. There is no suggestion that first civil service commissioner Baroness Stuart is behaving in anything other than an impartial and proper way – quite the reverse – but the confluence of circumstances is enough to make those who care about civil service impartiality jittery. Extending ministerial powers of appointment would lead to more short-term policy thinking and personal patronage and a less skilled workforce. Maude should steer clear of this row.
Good luck to Francis Maude as he returns to familiar territory. But this caretaker government has announced a review that will report to a prime minister who did not commission it. The new cabinet, under pressure to deliver tangible change in the remaining period of this parliament but distracted by leadership campaign commitments to declare “war on Whitehall”, should target their reforms carefully. It would be a bad mistake to set a course that damages the civil service’s ability to serve future governments in the same way as it serves the present one.