O'Donnell and Turnbull say any inquiry must examine politicians, not just civil servants

An inquiry needs to be held into the political process and the flaws in our system of government, two former cabinet secretaries have told Civil Service World. Their call comes after some politicians and other key figures have called for an inquiry into the future of the civil service.



By Joshua Chambers

03 Jun 2014

Lord O’Donnell said: “I do not favour an inquiry into the civil service, but would welcome an inquiry into government.” He called for an examination of ten issues, including how to raise the status of politics; how to help ministers prepare for their roles; how to improve the way that Parliament is perceived; and how to reduce disparities in the size of constituencies.

His predecessor, Lord Turnbull, backed his suggestion, saying: “I am cynical enough to believe that the politicians have deliberately promoted this idea [of an inquiry into the civil service] in order to exculpate themselves” and avoid being blamed for the government’s delivery failures.

“Deciding that the focus of the inquiry is into the civil service already prejudges the answer as it implies that the problems of government are down to the shortcomings in the civil service,” he added.

The pair were responding to CSW questions on the value of holding an inquiry into the civil service, submitted as part of a special report considering the need for and possible content of such an inquiry. The special report also gives the views of key figures such as government's lead non-executive Lord Browne, former Cabinet Office permanent secretary Ian Watmore, and former head of the Scottish civil service Sir John Elvidge.

Another former cabinet secretary, Lord Butler, responded by calling for regional pay for civil servants. “I think that pay has to be varied around the country, and in high cost areas like the South-East, pay has to be higher than areas where the cost of living is lower,” he said.

Butler also agreed, with Watmore and Elvidge, that the jobs of head of the UK civil service and cabinet secretary should be brought together again.

Watmore and Elvidge also called for an end to civil service bonuses. “I would prefer to see long-term pay reforms: people who genuinely deserve more, get more, over a long period of time, rather than bonuses,” Watmore said. “The whole topic of bonuses has become toxic, and however you dress it up it will always be criticised.”

The Public Administration Select Committee and the Commons Liaison Committee have both called for an independent inquiry into the future of the civil service, but the Cabinet Office’s ministers and top officials have argued that such an inquiry would be a distraction from ongoing reform programmes.

Writing in CSW, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude makes the case for focusing on existing reforms, saying: “We need to innovate and deliver at speed, changing things by doing, not by talking.”

He argues that change is needed to ensure the civil service remains fit to serve modern governments, saying that the UK civil service is often compared to a Rolls-Royce, “yet in a recent effectiveness index published by the World Bank, we ranked 15th.”

He continued: “All institutions must keep pace with changing circumstances. Rolls-Royce itself had to move from piston engines to jet turbines and nuclear reactors. Every successful businessman or woman gives their balance sheet a cold, hard look and slices out cost year on year.”

For further comments by O'Donnell and Turnbull, and input from other key figures, click here to read the full report


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