Francis Maude’s long-awaited (by the IfG at least) report on government reform has been published. The government has welcomed his contribution, while distancing itself from its more radical recommendations. Media reporting suggested that Maude’s work will “feed into a separate review of civil service reform being carried out by Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin, which is due to report in the new year”.
But within hours – minutes, even – of publication of his parliamentary statement on Maude, Quin left the government. Like so many other ministers, he used the reshuffle to announce that he would be stepping back to concentrate on his constituency and a future outside government.
The episode is a microcosm of the ongoing failure to take civil service reform seriously, the problems of inconsistent ministerial leadership and an unwillingness to tackle long term, often uncontroversial, problems with civil service capability. It follows news that Alex Chisholm, the civil service chief operating officer, is leaving the civil service next spring. With Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, on medical leave, leadership at the centre of government is starting to look a little thin on the ground.
Maude rightly diagnoses a lack of ‘stewardship’ in the civil service
There is much in the Maude review to welcome. He embraces a "stewardship obligation" for the civil service to do more to maintain its capability. He rightly points out that there is no individual or body with the authority to push reform across the whole civil service and recommends a clear delegation of power from the prime minister to the head of the civil service to address that. Helpfully Maude surfaces some tensions that can bog down civil service debate – he concludes that the civil service does have a responsibility to look beyond the time horizon of the government of the day, and there can be a role for it to act as a check on ministerial recklessness. Some ministers have refused to acknowledge these tensions, so it is good that Maude is putting the point on the record. But these civil service functions need to be made more open and explicit, as well as more directly accountable if they are to be carried out with legitimacy.
Another recommendation is to strengthen the Civil Service Commission, currently limited to overseeing some senior recruitment and the civil service code. Maude suggests turning it into a much more active regulator of civil service capability. As he acknowledges in the report, the IfG would prefer to bolster the statutory underpinning of the civil service and improve oversight with a new Board. We think that would be a better long-term solution – though strengthening the commission also has merit.
The government has already dismissed Maude’s two most radical institutional proposals, to carve spending functions out of the Treasury into a new Office of Budget and Management, and to split the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. These, Quin’s statement said, “would serve to detract from the focus on the prime minister’s five critical priorities”, hardly disguising the cool reception these ideas must have had in Whitehall. We will offer our own recommendations as part of the Institute’s Commission on the Centre of Government early next year.
Fixed-term contracts for senior civil servants would damage their ability to give honest advice
Leaked reports that Maude would be recommending more ministerial involvement in civil service appointments had been interpreted in Whitehall as a plan to stretch existing provisions for ministers to shape recruitment. However, Maude has gone much further – and is suggesting radical and misguided reform. While only tweaking the most senior appointment processes (ministers can already be heavily involved in permanent secretary and director general recruitment, in part because of reforms he pioneered) he now proposes that ministers should be able to designate any senior civil service job as critical, and allow special advisers to oversee the process. He also suggests ministers bring in their own outside chiefs of staff and principal private secretaries.
"Putting all senior officials on a four-year ticking clock would be damaging in and of itself, but also badly undermine what Maude is trying to do on civil service capability"
Most radical is a plan to put all senior civil servants on four-year fixed term contracts (Maude helped move permanent secretaries onto five-year contracts a decade ago). The review fairly convincingly dismisses concerns that fixed contracts would lead to politicisation and more churn, especially if Maude’s very welcome plans for minimum terms to reduce churn are adopted. But it overlooks the problem that fixed term contracts fundamentally change the incentives on senior officials to stand up to ministers and to give confident honest advice. If Maude is trying to tackle the very real problem of poor performance management in the civil service then simplifying dismissal and disciplinary procedures is the place to start. Putting all senior officials on a four-year ticking clock would be damaging in and of itself, but also badly undermine what Maude is trying to do on civil service capability.
Other recommendations return to what those who followed his time as a minister in the Cabinet Office will recognise as Maudian greatest hits. Better external recruitment, drawing heavily on the IfG’s work, is a core theme, as is more consistent standards for the government ‘functions’ of digital, data, finance, human resources and so on. More transparency and better accounting of progress against objectives are to be welcomed, as are sensible recommendations about fitting ministerial skillsets to their roles and – we can dare to dream – ministers staying in post for longer with better professional support.
New Cabinet Office minister John Glen may have little time to implement radical change
Speaking of which, it is a welcome to John Glen, unbelievably the thirteenth minister for the Cabinet Office since 2015. His Treasury experience is good news, and it is encouraging that Rishi Sunak has put an ally into this crucial job. But Glen has little time before a general election and will need to strike a balance – not losing the radicalism behind Maude’s recommendations while being realistic about what he can achieve in the coming months.
That means maintaining Jeremy Quin’s focus on pragmatic improvements, adopting in particular Maude’s suggestions about improving recruitment and increasing digital and data skills, and preparing the ground for further reform. Labour must now take government capability very seriously too, as it seems inevitable that the changes needed will only happen after the general election. A casual dismissal of civil service reform has defined too much of the last decade in government – whoever forms the next administration would benefit by making this an early priority.
Alex Thomas is a programme director at the IfG, where this article first appeared. He leads the institute’s work on the civil service and policy making