Listening to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude speak on civil service reform, I know it is something he cares passionately about. Some of the ideas outlined in his reform plan are sensible and will lead to better government. However, he also believes that giving ministers a greater say in the appointment of a broad group of civil servants – including permanent secretaries – will strengthen accountability; and I know that, on this, he is wrong.
The title of his speech at the Policy Exchange event (see Editorial; & news) was: “Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power”. In essence, he said that good ministers want robust, timely advice. “Ministers aren’t risk-averse” he said, “just surprise-averse”. He made much of the need for honesty and his frustration that, at times, civil servants have not voiced opposition to a policy but simply sought to “go slow” or ignore it.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of a particular spat between ministers and civil servants, reform must be about better government. Francis Maude may say ministers want civil servants to provide robust challenges and take risks, but that is not the experience of many civil servants who do just that.
Most politicians – and especially ministers – have absolute faith in their own ideas. Despite the public cynicism, most do the job because they genuinely want to make a difference. Some may welcome being told that their treasured policy is flawed, impractical or unnecessarily costly, but many do not.
Fortunately for the public, the current system is set up to ensure that civil servants speak truth unto power – and that does not happen by accident. It happens because the system demands that impartial, permanent and skilled civil servants have the power and knowledge to speak that truth. Of course ministers can affect the careers of civil servants – and they do – but in general the principle that a permanent civil servant is there to serve successive ministers and governments offers officials a solid foundation from which to provide the robust, evidence-based advice that the minister for civil service reform says his colleagues want.
If ministers ultimately have their say on the appointment of their permanent secretary, even from a shortlist of suitable candidates, then cracks will appear in that solid foundation. What exactly will they bring to the final selection process, when many have never run anything larger than their MP’s office? It is impossible to conclude that a minister will not be influenced by a view that a particular candidate “gets it” on the policies they are trying to deliver or, even more subjectively, by how they get on personally.
In his speech, Francis Maude went on to say he would want to see greater “support” for ministers. What he means is a greater number of personal appointments: not special advisers, but personally-appointed civil servants accountable to individual ministers. The risk this poses is that loyalty to the public, and personal loyalty to the minister who hired you, are not automatically synonymous.
Lord Hennessy has a nice line about the difference between those that “can do”, and those that believe. This should be the dividing line between civil servants and political appointees. If the experts that a minister says they want to hire really ‘can do’, they will be successful in a merit-based competition; otherwise, they have their jobs because of what they believe.
I don’t doubt Francis Maude wants a system that allows for truth unto power to be spoken, but I cannot see how surrounding a minister with individuals whose very career and employment are based on the patronage of that minister will embolden them to challenge.
Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), called for a parliamentary commission on the civil service at the FDA’s annual conference last month, and repeated that call at this event. Maude clearly disagreed, believing it will delay much-needed reform (see news).
What we do know is whoever wins the next election, the scale – and probably the pace – of cuts in public spending will remain. Time, perhaps, to genuinely re-think how our public services are delivered, rather than simply expecting the civil service to continue to do inexorably more with dramatically-reduced resources.
The FDA has always held the view that government has a democratic mandate to determine the size of the civil service, but it must match public sector resources to public sector commitments. Uncomfortable as that may be for politicians, perhaps a commission – royal or parliamentary – is a way to gain some consensus on how this can be achieved.
Editorial: With civil servants gagged, the debate over civil service reform looks rather like a mugging
News: Kerslake sets out 'unfinished business' in civil service reform