Civil Service reform: is tinkering worth it?

19th June 2013

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The Constitution Unit this week held a seminar on the IPPR’s new report on Civil Service reform. Guy Lodge from the IPPR outlined the report and former Permanent Secretary Sir Leigh Lewis made various observations, all pertinent. Numerous good points were made in the question and answer session that followed.  Everyone agreed – sincerely and indeed correctly – that the report was not only excellent but also very important.

But I wonder. Not about the excellence but about the importance. Whitehall watchers, myself included, find fascinating the detail of how Permanent Secretaries are appointed and how many people should serve in a Minister’s private office.  But it is hard to argue that those issues matter a row of beans in considering how to avoid episodes like the West Coast mainline saga or whether or not it is sensible to reduce the number of specialist heart units in hospitals.  And it is those issues which are far more likely to matter to the ordinary citizen than whether the Prime Minister or the head of the civil service should appoint the next Sir Humphrey.

There is certainly no doubt that there are big issues about the civil service which are worth serious study.  What is the right balance between Ministers deciding policy and public officials who are tasked to deliver that policy?  Should the civil service have direct links to Parliamentarians in the way that local Government officials have direct contacts to Councillors, regardless of their political party?  Should we have much more wholesale turnover of the civil service with a change of Government, following the US model.  And should we perhaps more openly recognise that not all Ministers are actually competent to run large Departments when they have no prior relevant experience.

The IPPR could have been asked to look at those issues but they weren’t. Indeed, even within the broad frame of what they were asked to look at, it was all a bit selective. For example the IPPR were asked to look at how Permanent Secretaries were appointed but not being asked to look at how they were dismissed  – even though it is an open Whitehall secret that quite a few recent Permanent Secretary departures were not entirely voluntary.

So we are back into the old game of tinkering with the system. Who knows how much emphasis the Government will now put on this but no doubt we will have some a long debate followed by some modest reforms, probably with Francis Maude forecasting Nirvana and some former Permanent Secretaries forecasting Armageddon.

There are times, of course, when tinkering is the only way of making progress.  The differences of view on how the House of Lords should be reformed, for example, should not be allowed to prevent sensible interim reforms such as the Lord Steel proposals.  But it would be nice to  see a slightly more ambitious attempt to look at the issues with a little more seriousness. We are not perhaps fiddling while Rome burns as London isn’t burning in quite the same way. But surely we could do better.

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