Filed Under (Public service reform) by Paul on 20-06-2012
Readers will remember that last week I posted twice on how the government were letting it be known that the civil service had let badly them down because they – the civil service – had not stopped the government from carrying out the government’s policy.
The most recent example has seen government sources let it be known that the Cabinet Secretary has not been doing his job because he allowed the Prime Minister to carry out the Prime Minister’s idea of having a public inquiry into the media under Leveson. Government sources say that it is the civil service’s job to stop Cabinet Ministers from doing stupid things and if the civil service don’t resolutely stand in the way of government doing stupid things then you can’t blame the government – you have to blame the civil service.
I suggested that over the summer this will begin to be used as an explanation for how on earth the government got into such trouble with its NHS reforms – that there will be whispers that a better civil service would have prevented this chaos – and therefore the mad reforms cannot be the government’s fault.
Within 10 days the government has published (yesterday) a policy on civil service reform. It will not surprise readers to know that the main thrust of this reform lies in the opposite direction of recent government complaints.
The narrative behind yesterday’s reform is that the civil service has stood in the way of government policy. (Regular readers will no doubt recognise and be unsurprised that this rather contradicts the government’s line – detailed above – which says that the problem with the civil service is that they are not strong enough to get in the way of government policy).
Amongst other reforms this paper suggests that Cabinet Ministers should be allowed to select their own Permanent Secretaries.
One explanation for this contradiction is that the Cabinet Minister in charge of civil service reform is Francis Maude. Francis Maude – just like our own Andrew Lansley – came into government with a plan. The plan was to bring much more private sector culture into the civil service as an engine of public service reform.
In the NHS we know that cultural change from private to public to sector (or vice versa) is very hard and you need to be a really good leader with a good change skills and a good narrative to achieve it.
Francis Maude has proved to be neither a good leader nor to have good change skills, and does not possess a narrative.
Just as with our own Andrew Lansley the problem has not been with the direction (I generally agree that the civil service should carry out with skill and confidence the wishes of the elected Cabinet) but with the capability to carry out change.
Francis Maude has an even bigger problem than Andrew Lansley. He can’t get civil servants to work with him. I don’t mean that they have difficulties in understanding what he wants, I mean this literally. At both junior and senior levels he has, within a short period of time, had very high turnover of staff resulting in gaps in the personnel of his department. At a senior level he had appointed Ian Whatmore to his department as a Permanent Secretary – but Ian left a few weeks ago.
One of the reasons that Francis Maude wants to be able to appoint his friends to be his Permanent Secretary is because he can’t get anyone else to work with him.
It may seem a poor reason for overturning 160 years of civil service political neutrality, but you can understand the pain of coming to work every day and hearing nothing but the sound of doors banging as people leave.
If there were any chance of any of this stuff happening it would be an outrage. But we know that all it will need to stop it is a couple of articles in the Times aimed at David Cameron. These will ask whether David Cameron wants to go down in history as the Prime Minister that politicised the civil service and as a consequence the reforms will be dropped.
Those of us who have watched the last 2 years of NHS reforms will recognise – from the summer of 2011 – how the constancy of approach to reform of this government can be reversed with an appeal to the conservatism of the Prime Minister.
Whilst I am sure there will be some in the civil service who will be outraged by these plans, they should not worry too much. The government has neither the nerve nor the capacity to carry them through.
Even if that means Francis Maude has to work on his own.