Old Whitehall cannot hold

Whitehall sign

James Forsyth’s piece in today’s Spectator is insightful about the growing political consensus that Whitehall needs a shake-up. It’s often missed that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, have been supporting change. Notably, Kerslake co-signed the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan and its first year update with the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude.

Most neutral readers of the Plan would not find it especially controversial. Improving skills, becoming digital by default and building commercial and operational expertise are obviously desirable aims. But then there’s the proposal to “sharpen the accountability of Permanent Secretaries.” And there’s the rub. When major projects fail – see today’s latest news in the saga of Universal Credit, which has been the cause of particular friction – who is responsible?

Not Sir Humphrey – at least, not until now. Perhaps this explains a rearguard action by former mandarins, some of whom were leading the civil service before e-mail was invented. Last week saw a spate of briefings against the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude. I discussed these issues with former Cabinet Secretary (1988-1998) Lord Butler on Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme last Saturday.

I was struck that Butler came along with a written script, having prepared the precise wording of his attack on Maude. But, then, I knew what he was going to say, since he had taken the trouble of informing a journalist beforehand. The Daily Telegraph duly ran the story, which also asked whether Sir Humphrey was “about to claim a scalp or two”, suggesting that the Cabinet Secretary had complained to the Prime Minister about Maude and Iain Duncan Smith. It didn’t seem to have occurred to Lord Butler that his criticism of ministers for briefing against civil servants might be somewhat compromised by his admission that he had briefed himself.

Presenter Peter Oborne said that Butler’s comments were “Whitehall’s equivalent of a declaration of war.” You can listen and judge for yourself here.

I suspect the ex-mandarins haven’t caught up with what the new generation of civil service leaders know: we live in the age of accountability, and when the political parties agree about the need for change, old Whitehall cannot hold.

Forsyth reports correctly that the senior Labour MP John Healey and I are planning to form a cross-party group to push for radical reform of the civil service, and that it will launch in January. Watch this space.

One thought on “Old Whitehall cannot hold

  1. Richard Allen

    As a former junior mandarin, I believe this needs to be carefully thought through. It’s certainly right that Civil Servants should be held accountable for their actions (or lack of them). But equally, Ministers must be as accountable for their actions. Civil Servants will have to be allowed to defend themselves – against current or past Ministers if necessary – in public. They may well also have to explain the effects of Central Government (notably Treasury) management of funding on project/programme outcomes. The project I ran which were successful had pretty well guaranteed funding and didn’t involve any politicians. Those that did less well were usually messed around by intermittent funding & external meddling. This is likely to be a Pandora’s box…or perhaps more accurately the proverbial can of worms. It’s probably a good thing for democratic accountability – but Ministers shouldn’t expect it to be anything other than uncomfortably and messy.


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