Michael Gove dismissed as "bitter" after he blasts "bottom-covering" Senior Civil Service

Former education secretary calls for weekly naming and shaming of civil servants working on big projects, but union for senior officials says his intervention is "more about resurrecting his career as a columnist"

By Matt Foster

25 Nov 2016

Michael Gove has been dismissed as a "bitter politician" trying to reclaim his "moment in the sun", after he accused the Senior Civil Service of “blame-shifting and bottom-covering”, and urged greater scrutiny of top officials.

Writing in The Times, the former education and justice secretary called for a new system of accountability for the most senior civil servants, and hit out at the Ministry of Defence over recent engine problems in its fleet of Type 45 warships.

“The inability of our destroyers to match the seaworthiness of a Swan Hellenic cruise liner was a consequence of the Ministry of Defence failing to test the ships ‘sufficiently long enough to demonstrate that the engine was reliable’,” he wrote.

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“The bureaucrats at the MoD appear to have accomplished something that neither Napoleon nor Hitler ever managed — they’ve effectively disabled the navy.”

Gove said the MoD “fiasco” was just the latest in a string of government projects to have gone awry, pointing to the NHS’s now-abandoned national IT programme; the 2014 scandal which saw the Ministry of Justice overcharged for offender tagging by two private suppliers; and money “squandered” on David Cameron’s flagship Troubled Families programme, whose impact was questioned by a recent official assessment.

The former education secretary welcomed the Treasury’s decision this week to scrap annual Autumn Statements, but instead called for a rolling programme of updates on big government projects, which would be used to determine the career prospects of top officials.

“In its place I’d like to see not half-yearly but weekly statements — reporting results in the real world rather than promises for the future — updating us on how effective all the public spending that’s already been announced has actually been,” he said.

“And alongside these updates I’d like to see the names of civil servants responsible for these programmes published, their explanations for failure (or success) recorded and those who’ve failed be removed while those who can demonstrate clear, measurable, success get promoted.”

“I'm not sure anyone really listens to the man who said we've had enough of experts" - Dave Penman, FDA union

But the system of accountability proposed by Gove would come on top of several civil service performance measures already introduced in Whitehall in recent years, many at the instigation of Conservative ministers.

Under rules introduced in the last parliament, top officials known as "Senior Responsible Owners" are now directly accountable to parliament for the delivery of their projects, and the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority rates whether big schemes are on track.

A staff performance management system which sees managers assign ratings to all their staff is also in place, and there is an ongoing overhaul of the government's commercial capability in direct response to the MoJ tagging scandal.

The attack on the Senior Civil Service by Gove – who left government earlier this year after failing to win the Conservative leadership – has already triggered a furious response from Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union for top officials.

"Many brilliant civil servants left in exasperation at the complacency, blame-shifting and bottom-covering among too many of their superiors who duck responsibility when crisis after crisis occurs" - Michael Gove

Penman told CSW it was "disappointing to see a bitter politician pour their bile on the public servants that once served them well, in an attempt to reclaim their moment in the sun".

He added: “I'm not sure anyone really listens to the man who said we've had enough of experts, but as he knows, civil servants in charge of major projects are accountable to their minister and the Public Accounts Committee for their success or failure, under the ever-watchful gaze of the National Audit Office.

“Those same civil servants continue to deliver ever more with ever less, as the government he was a member of slashed their resources by 20% in the last parliament and then by the same margin again in this one. Those are the same civil servants who now have to deliver Brexit, the biggest administrative and legislative challenge in peacetime history, with little or no extra resource.

“Paying lip service to successes whilst simultaneously blaming officials - even for the failings of ministers - demonstrates that this article is more about resurrecting his career as a columnist than any interest in good public services.”

Elsewhere in his Times column, Gove claimed that education department officials had dismissed colleagues who questioned the status quo as “viruses”, with Whitehall still not welcoming to “outsiders who challenge groupthink”.

And he said that while ministers were often sacked when policies went wrong, the senior tier of the civil service remains “insulated from responsibility for their actions, while the projects they’re supposed to be managing fail and fail again”.

“Having worked for six years in Whitehall I got to know lots of brilliant civil servants,” he added. “I also know that many of them left and are leaving in exasperation at the complacency, blame-shifting and bottom-covering among too many of their superiors who duck responsibility when crisis after crisis occurs.”

Gove's comments chime with claims made by former Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge, who wrote in her recently-published book that the top of the civil service still resembled a "masonic lodge", and was "full of people from a similar background, who have mostly been lifelong civil servants and whose main purpose is to protect themselves and each other".

Hodge told CSW that prime minister Theresa May should insist that one-third of all permanent secretaries are drawn from outside of the civil service, in a bid to change the culture of the organisation.

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