Former Department for Education and Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington has told Dominic Cummings he will not be able to reform Whitehall without support from senior officials
Speaking after Cummings published a job advert seeking “weirdos and misfits”, policy experts and “unusual” mathematicians and computer scientists to work in No.10, Normington said he had “interesting ideas” but needed “lots of allies” to get them done.
Normington, who was Department for Education perm sec from 2001 to 2005 then Home Office to 2011 before becoming first civil service commissioner from 2011 to 2016, said Cummings “is going to need to work with Whitehall, not against it”.
“It is a big machine and one person can’t change it without lots of allies. You do need the machine,” he told the Observer.
Cummings, who has said he wants to overhaul civil service recruitment, said he wanted “true wild cards” to email him directly if they believed they were qualified to work as special advisers "and perhaps some as officials", asking for people to contact him directly by email.
He is seeking applications in seven categories: data scientists and software developers, economists, policy experts, project managers, communication experts, junior researchers – one of whom will act as his personal assistant – and “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.
Normington said that support from reforms for senior civil servants was needed to both make changes and to successfully link these to the government’s pledges to improve public services.
“It is a hard slog to raise standards to improve the NHS, to improve the education system, to tackle immigration,” he said. “You do need to have the management capabilities to do that and you have to connect your ideas with that long, hard slog of delivering the policy on the ground.
“One of the things that happens in Whitehall is that if there are not enough supporters of these kinds of ideas, then opposition to them builds, or the person at the centre of them is ignored.”
Responding to Cummings’ job post, the Civil Service Commission, which regulates recruitment into government, told Civil Service World that it was always ready to consider proposals to improve recruitment processes.
‘The commission’s statutory role is to ensure appointment to the civil service is made on merit, after a fair and open competition. It is governed by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The commission plays no role in the appointment of special advisers,” the commission said in a statement.
“The commission will consider proposals from ministers or civil service leadership on civil service appointments as necessary in the usual way.”
Elsewhere in his blog post, Cummings indicated the direction of wider civil service reform, saying that “one of the problems with the civil service is the way in which people are shuffled such that they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know to do something else”.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that civil servants should not be hearing about government plans for the service though Cumming’s blog. “If you have got a big policy agenda, what you need is civil servants working on that, not this reorganising of the deckchairs,” he told the Observer. “It is the prime minister who is responsible. Nothing that Dominic Cummings says or does is done without the authority of the prime minister.”