Whitehall chiefs: briefings against officials ‘past us now’

The recent series of “damaging and distracting” attacks on the civil service by unnamed ministers and their advisers has ended with the publication of the Civil Service Reform Plan, the UK’s top civil servants told audiences at Civil Service Live (CSL) last week.

By Joshua.Chambers

11 Jul 2012

“I’m pretty confident myself that the government is united behind the plan and that any ‘noises off’ will be completely unauthorised and completely ignorant, frankly, of where the political centre of gravity is,” cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said in answer to a question from the audience. “I feel confident that we’re not going to see constant repetition of those stories, because they were damaging and distracting, there’s no doubt about it, and not what senior ministers actually believe.”

Speaking to CSW for an interview published today, head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake said of the civil service’s critics that “the plan reflects the issues that they’ve raised as well, so where they’re frustrated we’ve picked that up and put that in the plan.” Given the plan’s action on these criticisms, he argued, “I think that period of exchange is probably past us now and we can move on.”

However, at CSL Kerslake acknowledged that he was furious when allies of departing Tory strategist Steve Hilton briefed the Daily Telegraph that the civil service should be cut by 70-90 per cent, and recalled how he’d used Twitter to instantly challenge the idea. “When those stories appeared, I was genuinely very angry about [the idea of] reductions in the civil service of 70 or 90 per cent, which never has been government policy,” he said. “I immediately did a Tweet saying: ‘This is not right’, and the power of that was that it got picked up in a whole set of newspapers. So very quickly, literally within hours, we were able to go back and challenge things that should be put right and were particularly unfair on the civil service. And I’ll continue to do that. I think that’s part of the job when there’s unfair, unjustified criticism, particularly when it comes from anonymous sources.”

The difficulty of tackling anonymous briefings was also highlighted by Heywood, who noted: “The problem we have is that there’s no point having a pitched battle against anonymous ministers briefing against the civil service. When we make less controversial statements no-one wants to report them, so we just have to fight through that cynicism and try our best to get the message across.”

The cabinet secretary concluded that “now the document has been put to bed and the whole Cabinet has come behind it, I think we’ve seen the level of ‘noises off’ go right down.”

Read the full interview with Heywood and Kerslake


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