Permanent civil service ‘an idea for the history books’: New No.10 adviser Dominic Cummings' views on Whitehall

Former DfE spad and Vote Leave chief is a longstanding critic of Whitehall. CSW reviews what he says he would change if he had power

Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images

By Richard Johnstone

25 Jul 2019

Dominic Cummings, the incoming senior adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, has called the concept of a permanent civil service “an idea for history books” and proposed the abolition of the role of permanent secretaries in his vision for civil service reform.

Cummings, a former special advisor to Michael Gove in the Department for Education who then went onto lead the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, is a longstanding critic of the organisation of Whitehall.

Following his exit from government, he has set out his criticism and proposals for changes in Whitehall on his blog, building on reforms he set out in a talk for the IPPR think tank in 2014 entitled The Hollow Men: What's wrong with Westminster and Whitehall, and what to do about it.


In the build up to the 2016 referendum, Cummings told the Treasury Committee that Foreign Office officials couldn’t negotiate their way “out of a paper bag” and accusing senior civil servants of “making threats” to keep Britain in the EU. But it was in his 2014 talk, which prompted a laugh from the audience when he set out his priorities “if I ever manage to get control of No.10”, that the now-senior adviser to the prime minister gave his clearest critique of how the civil service works.

Permanent civil service 'an idea for the history books'

A lot of problems with the civil service stem from the incentives for promotion in departments, Cummings said in his 2014 talk, which hit out at both HR practices across government and its ability to deliver policy. He said the system is bound to “create crises and frequent spectacular failures” and that he wanted to end the principle of a permanent civil service.

“The people who are promoted tend to be the people who protect the system and don’t rock the boat,” he said. “A lot of young people who care and work hard are often disillusioned quite quickly and leave, and the ones who play the system and focus on personal goals and not the public interest also tend to be the ones who are promoted .

“It promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done, and it ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view.”

This means that civil servants do not have the skills to tackle big problems, which ministers cannot change due to recruitment rules, he said.

“So if you have an entire political structure that selects against the skills of entrepreneurs and successful scientists, don’t be surprised when the people in charge can’t solve problems like entrepreneurs and scientists.”

He said that in organisations that work very well, there are “people that care, they try hard”, but “in large parts of the civil service, the whole HR system encourages the opposite”.

“Almost no one is ever fired,” he said. “Time after time after time, I would be in the [education] department and on a TV screen it would say ‘Latest Gove disaster, Gove botches X’, and I would look through the glass screen and you would see the official responsible for it the lift, pottering home at 3.30 in the afternoon, doesn’t care. Why not? Because failure is normal, it is not something to be avoided.”

In comments that mirrored Michael Gove’s reported criticism of flexible working arrangements, Cummings claimed that the DfE had to ban major announcements on Mondays “because you can’t assemble a team reliably on a Friday”.

“If you want to see shocked faces in Whitehall, when something goes wrong suggest to them that you want to pursue the people responsible to their new jobs in their new department

“Between flexible hours, compressed hours and a culture thats says it's perfectly acceptable to go on holiday the day before an announcement you’ve been working on for the last six months, it is very hard to get everyone in the same room. So we just had to ban announcements on Monday, because we knew it would all just fall apart.”

He said the “huge system in Whitehall, in my opinion, is programmed to go wrong, it can’t work”, and civil servants lacked basic skills.

He said when he had first arrived at DfE with Gove in 2010, "every budget you got would be wrong, every contract process would go wrong, every procurement will blow up in your face and legal advice will probably be wrong", although conditions improved from 2012.

“If you can’t procure things in your own building effectively, what are the odds you can procure things for 20,000 schools? The odds are very small, and that is why you see the same cycle constantly of: why did this go wrong? Well, so-and-so signed a duff contact but then so-and-so moved, and the person in charge says, 'Well it isn’t my fault, I wasn’t there then, I’ve taken over this process'.

He said telling officials that he wanted to pursue the civil servant who had been responsible for a project that had gone wrong would prompt "shocked faces in Whitehall". "Their reaction is: ‘Oh my god, Dom, you can’t do that, if you did that where would it end?’ Which just about sums it up.”

He said there was a need to “re-orient” Whitehall to what he said should be the national goal of making Britain the global leader in education and science.

“We need to bin some institutions and create others... We need to reorient Whitehall to think about to how to incentivise goals, not micro-manage methods."

Chief among his plans was to “end the concept of the permanent civil service in general".

"I think it is an idea for the history books [and] In particular, I would get rid of permanent secretaries," he said.

“At the moment, the permanent secretary has a role that is a combination of chief policy adviser, department CEO and a fixer, and it is a crazy combination. It is mis-defining the role.

"What we should have is a chief policy officer for the department, and it would be good to have a very small team that fulfils that role – preserves institutional memory, runs proper libraries and maintains proper records. But this role should have no responsibility for management and implementing... and move all of the idea of a CEO [chief executive officer] or a COO [chief operating officer] of the organisation to a completely different position.”

He said that such change would be possible because of so-called “beneficial crisis”.

Cummings, who led the campaign group against Britain’s membership of the Euro, said: “People will say it's impossible to do this, but people have told me too, 'You’ll never beat Blair on the Euro, you’ll never get more than fraction of your crazy plans through the DfE'. Things are possible, particularly when crisis hits."

Speaking two years before the 2016 referendum on EU membership, he added: "The EU was created on the basis of what they call beneficial crisis, and because of the nature of the world and the way things are going we’re going to see lots of beneficial crisis shortly, that would enable us to change things along the lines I’ve suggested if we want to.”

Ministerial appointments

In comments that were noteworthy in light of Johnson’s reshuffle yesterday, Cummings said that there was a need to radically slim down the cabinet. The reshuffle created a 22-strong cabinet, with a further 10 ministers able to attend.

“You have to shrink the cabinet,” Cummings said in 2014. “The idea of a cabinet of over 30 people is a complete farce; it should be maximum of probably six or seven people.”

He also called for a rule change to give ministers who had been appointed from the Lords a right of audience in the House of Commons, and to enable them to be questioned in beefed-up select committees.

To some laughter from attendees, he said with a smile: “That would be on my to-do list, if I ever manage to get control of No.10. One of the first things I would do is [have] some orders in council whizzed through at 2am that gave the prime minister the right to do this”.

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