No, Sir Humphrey

Posted On: 
7th February 2013

Francis Maude is determined to modernise both the Civil Service and the Conservative Party, and is not afraid to make some enemies along the way

Francis Maude is in his Whitehall office, talking about the perils of paper. No, not the broadsheets or tabloids. Not even White Papers or Green Papers. He is outlining his plans to save the taxpayer millions by centralising paper-purchasing and recycling across Government.

 But, aptly enough for the man with the most Jim Hackeresque of roles in the Cabinet, Maude is also explaining the ingenious excuses civil servants come up with for failing to implement just one part of his cost-cutting revolution.

“You think paper would be a no brainer,” he says. “But I’ve had people sitting in this room saying, ‘Well for my department, paper is a Strategic Product’. Paper?...

“We've got this fabulous deal which the commercial director at the HMRC did for the whole of government, it's called a closed loop paper recycling contract. Trying to get every part of government to agree to buy it through that…the fertility of reasons, creativity of reasons: 'we don't have the colour of the paper’, ‘we don't think it will work in our printers’, ‘it’s strategic for us’, ‘ours is done through another contract with a different supplier’. Well, change it!

“The number of times you sit in a room when you’re talking about reform and people say, ‘Well of course I totally agree in principle… but it wouldn’t quite work for my  department.’”

If this all sounds very Yes, Minister, it’s deliberate. Like many before him, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has learned rapidly that the show is less fiction than documentary.

But as the politician charged by David Cameron with the task of shaking up the Civil Service and driving through cross-Government reform and efficiency, he has little patience for Sir Humphrey’s elegant chicanery. And as he outlines the successes and challenges ahead, the message from Maude is clear: paper tiger, he ain’t.

From slashing civil servant numbers to getting better procurement, from getting more services online to pushing the open data agenda, the Minister knows what he wants.

His office in 70 Whitehall is certainly at the heart of Government. Standing downstairs near the connecting door to No.10, the Coalition’s own Sir Humphrey, Sir Jeremy Heywood, can be glimpsed chatting to Oliver Letwin. A minute later, Nick Clegg sweeps by. It’s an overused phrase, but this really is a corridor of power.

Perched up high on the floors above, Maude’s suite overlooking Horseguards is one of the finest of any minister. It used to belong to Michael Heseltine when he was Deputy Prime Minister, as well as Tessa Jowell, Liam Byrne and Ed Miliband when they all occupied the Minister for the Cabinet Office brief.

Yet as with most things in Whitehall, the civil service has a way of making itself felt. Maude explains that even this grand office is decidedly temporary: “If there’s an election where it’s expected that there will be a change of Government, it mysteriously turns into a meeting room. In the 1997 election, Robin Butler was up here in his shirt sleeves moving furniture himself.” Maude smiles. “It’s all about ministers knowing their place.”

As he carefully peels a lunchtime tangerine, his iPad and smartphone at his side, he looks the very model of a modernising minister. But there is one shock: Francis Maude is wearing a tie. He swiftly explains that it is only because he’s just attended Cabinet. “I don’t like wearing a tie, I never have done. And I’m now at the age and station in life where if I don’t want to wear a tie, I don’t…But, hey, I do what I’m told by my sartorial advisory committee.”

Maude undoubtedly wants his modernising zeal to apply to Whitehall as a whole and many forget that his job entails saving huge sums for the taxpayer. He says he is proud of the “very unglamorous” work of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency Reform Group in saving the Government “real, proper folding money”.

The ERG aims to claw back £20bn of Government spending by 2014/5 through a mixture of reform, contract renegotiation and efficiency drives. To date £1.8bn has been saved on contract renegotiations. He picks out a recent example where the incumbent supplier – “one of the big multinational systems integrating suppliers” – bid £4m for a Government contract, whereas a UK-based SME bid £60,000 for the same service. “A 98.5% saving. I don’t claim that we can do that absolutely across the piece but we have a number of examples where we can get savings of 80 or 90% by going to different suppliers, doing things differently.”

A key way of saving money is, of course, through new technology. Maude points to “massive savings” made through a switch to online delivery of services such applying for driving licenses.

“I think increasingly our approach is ‘digital by default’; that’s the way you do it,” he states. “There will be people who continue not to be online but it will be a diminishing number of people and for them there will be an assisted digital option.”

But, to borrow from George Osborne’s famous phrase, it’s clear that he often feels like a digital politician in an analogue Whitehall.

He admits there is “a hell of a long way to go” in the digital drive, and complains that large parts of the Civil Service are still dragging their heels. “You have in Whitehall, IT people for whom IT is big procurements, big systems, a lot of tin and wire, lots of security systems, very expensive, doesn’t work very well, frustrates the hell out of civil servants particularly but also the public because [the systems] are so difficult to use. And then you have a new world which is all web-based, open source, open standards, where people talk about platforms and applications – it’s a totally different world.”

And a world, he says, which “so many civil servants are responding well to…there was a bit of a sense to begin with that this was all a bit threatening and it all sounds a bit too to good to be true, so a lot of early scepticism, [but] we’re now kind of proving the concept, so it’s very exciting”.

“Government is unbelievably clunky and it's a big source of frustration to civil servants who want to get on and do the work they don’t want to wait around for the wretched thing to boot up”

He praises the “brilliant” Mike Bracken, poached from The Guardian to become the Government’s Executive Director of Digital, and his “terrific team” as “the future”, but some civil servants grumble that the admiration for the digital revolution means Bracken’s outfit are exempt from austerity.

Maude defends his Government Digital Service: “They are not on massive salaries. They could all be earning much more in the private sector and they don’t because they love what they do and they know they’re the cutting edge of delivering historic change.”

Again, it’s about value for money. “The typical cost of providing a desktop in the Cabinet Office is about £2,000 per year. GDS set up themselves with a separate system based on Macs at the cost of less than £400 a year.”

The Minister himself is playing his part in the digital revolution. Having learned his way around a Blackberry whilst in Opposition – “because you don’t have resources…we were among very early Blackberry users, you get ahead” – Maude has since swapped with his red ministerial box for an ‘e-box’.

Not that paper is an obsession of his, but it’s clear he sees a paperless office and a paperless Government as the future. “The only physical papers I take home are either if they are too high a classification to go in my e-box, or papers for the next day,” he boasts. “If I have a speech to do I will actually have it on my iPad… slightly nerve-wracking, first time you do it.” And when it comes to signing off a Government document, he keeps it digital: “I just sort of do a ‘reply all’ and say ‘agree’.”

Maude has been described by The Guardian writer Ben Goldacre as “a massive visionary” on opening up Government data. The increasing culture of an online Government saw last December’s launch of the Open Data Institute (ODI) as the latest step towards greater accessibility. Co-directed by World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the ODI’s goal is to make use of the increasing amount of Government data being made public.

As for the ODI itself, he admits that few of the public have heard of it. “I wouldn’t say there was a high degree of awareness of it. Nor does there need to be. What’s the sort of manifestation to normal citizens, it’s not ‘Oh there’s this wonderful Open Data Institute’, it’s ‘Oh there’s this app on my phone that tells me when my bus is coming. It’s fabulous. Do I have time to get a coffee? Do I need to run? Kind of handy.

“And that’s at the mundane end of it. At the rather more serious end of it, publishing outcome data on a consistent and comparable basis for hospitals has already been a powerful driver of change and improvement and there’s much, much more to do with schools.”

But the bold ambition has raised a few confused eyebrows, with some critics saying it sits awkwardly with proposals to review Freedom of Information laws. Maude disagrees, arguing that it is a “completely consistent approach”.

So much so, that he wants to make FOIs redundant altogether.

“You should get to a point, actually, where FOI becomes irrelevant because everything that is appropriate to be published we should be proactively publishing – we should get to a point where we routinely publish the data and the evidence on which decisions are made.”

Not that policy is always shaped by evidence.

“Far too much policy-making in Whitehall is not very evidence-based. Sometimes that’s completely appropriate because there isn’t any evidence and you’re making a judgment – we should be very open about that – but too often… policy gets developed on the basis of assumptions and assertions and arguments rather than what’s your foundation layer of data and evidence, and I think routinely moving towards a culture where we expect to publish the data and have it scrutinised will introduce rigour.”

At the same time, the minister wants to allow discussions between ministers and officials to remain off limits. “What you should then do is rigorously protect the space within which officials give candid advice to ministers and ministers can discuss policy, because if you have that space capable of being opened up through FOI requests then… it’s bad news in terms of candid, challenging advice.”

Maude says that last summer’s immigration problems at Heathrow are a classic case of poor data systems.  "We are very bad at management information generally, you know. When there was lots of stuff going on about queues at Heathrow I remember the Prime Minister quite legitimately complaining that he kept being given different numbers, and there’s been too much tendency for people to collect whatever data they like. The new boards we've set up with much more senior business people on them in departments, they have been absolutely clamouring for better management information, they were kind of uniformly appalled by the poor quality and the inconsistency of management information because with proper management information comes greater accountability.”

As for Civil Service reform, Maude gives “huge credit to Bob Kerslake as Head of the Civil Service who is a formidable implementer of change, because he’s gripped this and banged heads together”.

But Kerslake aside (and he also pays generous tribute to Sir Jeremy Heywood), it’s clear that the Minister sometimes finds the Sir Humphreys of the world hard-going. A report by the Reform think tank recently criticised poor man management in the Civil Service and over-rotation of staff.

“Performance management has been poor generally,” Maude agrees, bemoaning a failure in the Civil Service to have “open, honest and tough conversations with people”.

Maude points out that Whitehall has gone from about half a million full time equivalent civil servants to about 420,000. “Current plans show that falling by another 40,000 by 2015 which will be nearly a 25% reduction. That’s not negligible. Is that the kind of settled size of the civil service for all time? I very much doubt it.”

Sir Humphreys themselves, and not just the staff lower down, are in the Maude firing line. Last year he said that some permanent secretaries had blocked policy, while others advised colleagues not to implement ministerial decisions. Has that improved?

“Has it stopped happening? No. Is it routine, daily occurrence? Absolutely not. But the good thing is that Bob Kerslake and Jeremy Heywood as the two most senior civil servants take this kind of thing extremely seriously. Obviously, anything along these lines that I find out about I bring to their attention and they are very robust indeed. No fault to find there at all.”

Maude is still very keen on ultimately giving ministers the power to decide on their own perm sec appointments. He says the Civil Service Commission was wrong recently to come out against the idea. “They sought to use slightly emotive language about the slippery slope to politicisation. Which I think shows a lack of confidence in their own ability to invigilate the process.”

As for public service reform, he points to new ways of running the NHS and councils.

“One of the things where we’ve seen a considerable growth and which I think is just the beginning and is going to be a big feature of public service in years ahead is the growth of the public service mutual movement. Where groups of public servants spin themselves out of the public sector and set up maybe in most cases on their own but in some cases in a joint venture with the private sector or another organisation an entity that delivers the public service on a contractual basis from outside the pub sector.

“They all talk about the same things. They say ‘why would we never go back and work for the council, department, PCT, whatever? Because we can do things. We can see what needs to be done and we can just do it. We don’t have to go through a process, don’t have to get clearance, we just make a judgment, have a contractual obligation to deliver and we need to work out the best way to do it’.

He recalls an NHS ward in Swindon where a new mutual oversees intermediate care, rehabilitation and social care. “I was going around the ward and they said they’d like to show me the stock room. I went in there and there was a wall of racks with different bits of kit in. And someone had put a sticker on each box with the unit cost. I said ‘Who did that?’ thinking it was an accountant with a clip board that came round. It was one of the nurses. I said ‘well, why?’. And they said ‘Since we did it we use the things much more carefully. We used to be frankly kind of casual in how we used stuff’. I said 'Why are you doing this? You are not-for-profit, although you own the new entity it's not worth anything to you financially'. They said "Well it’s two things. One is at some stage we are going to have to re-compete for the contract and if our cost base is right down, we will be in a much better place to keep the contract and to win other contracts elsewhere. The second thing is every pound that we save can be put into patient care and that’s what we are doing this for.'

“The productivity improvements in mutuals are staggering. Almost literally overnight in the same place they showed me the chart for measuring the number of staff absences and it literally halved from one month to the next. That’s a huge indicator of productivity and of morale - a massive boost. It’s very exciting.”

One area where Maude has a quieter life at present is industrial relations. After the intensive talks with unions over pensions, things have settled down. Perhaps that’s why he sounds cool on the idea of changing the law to impose thresholds on strike ballots.

“I think [on] changes to the threshold, never ruled it out, never said it is unthinkable. There aren’t many places where it’s been done. And there are risks in doing it in the sense that you do it and unions that get a majority, or reach a threshold, have then got a greater degree of legitimacy. Whereas I think a lot of the industrial action was called on the basis of very low turnouts and very low votes lacked a lot of credibility and the turnout in the strikes was poor. So, you never say never but I don’t think it’s kind of pressing.”

A Cameroon before Cameron was even elected, Maude’s modernising instincts were famously applied to the Tory Party in Opposition. He was the man who pioneered the ‘Maudernising’ A lists, but does he now think that his changes came ‘too little, too late’ for the 2010 election?

“It was definitely later than it should have been. We should have done it earlier. I was talking about it way earlier than that. But I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it before then. I don’t think it was too little,” he says.

As for the same-sex marriage bill, he thinks the party will just move on quickly. Referring to Tory MPs who are voting on the bill, he says: “I’d much rather more of them voted for equal marriage.  I don’t think it will be an issue when it’s decided and implemented. People will be saying in a few years time, just as people who opposed civil partnerships when they came in in 2004 pretty soon came to think, ‘what was that all about?’And so I think this will all move on relatively quickly.”

Is he worried the modernising revolution he began has gone off the rails? “It needs to be kept up. All organisations are either getting better or getting worse. And unless you are actively getting better, you are getting worse. All parties to be electable have to be contemporary, have to feel and look in tune with the country they are seeking to represent. And lead.

“I sometimes reflect that in 1979 when the Thatcher Government was elected for the first time, we had relatively more support among voters under 35 than we did among voters over 35 and that wasn’t, we promised, because Mrs Thatcher was trying to be hip or cool or get down with the youth.

“It was because the kind of Britain she was talking about was one that the younger people felt in tune with. People who wanted to get on, pay less tax, be freer in the workplace and not be crowded out by closed shop unions. It was a different kind of Britain that younger people aspired to.”

Another aspirational moderniser but with a Thatcherite edge was Steve Hilton, the PM’s policy ‘guru’. Will he make a comeback before the election?

“No idea. He’s always great to have around. Always invigorating, thought provoking and he’s brilliant and I’m a massive Steve fan.”

Would the civil servants welcome him back too? For the first time, Maude’s effortless stream of answers is disrupted. He hesitates, then smiles. “Erm…they say it’s been duller since he left.”

Maude’s dry sense of humour has served him well through some of the Civil Service pushback he’s endured over the last couple of years. Jonathan Lynn, the co-writer of Yes, Minister, recently recalled a delicious story about Maude and the September reshuffle. The word was that civil servants thought their minister was being moved and so prepared a note of advice for his successor. Unfortunately, when he didn’t move, he got hold of the note. It allegedly read: “Drop your predecessor’s plan to reform the civil service.”

Maude laughs off the anecdote, pointing out it isn’t quite right. “There was a lot of speculation that I might move to a different job, which I resisted, and they, perfectly properly, prepared a handover note to my successor.” He smiles again. “The description of our policy didn’t fully reflect what our policy was. It was quite funny...It was just describing our policy in a way that was more congenial to the system than our understanding of it.”

He wryly notes too that some civil servants were very keen on his possible advancement to another role. “I think there were a number of suggestions for how ‘such and such a job’ would be ‘just the job for Francis’. But to the Prime Minister I had said I want to stay here and see this through.”

As for the Minister himself, he stresses that his is not a paper commitment to reforming Whitehall and Government.

 “I’m really happy doing this, love doing this and it’s kind of unfinished business – and it shows no signs of suddenly being finished.”

Sir Humphrey, and Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob, would at least agree on that.

Maude on...the Tory Party

“We went through a period where we looked and sounded like we didn’t much like modern Britain – out of tune, out of kilter with modern Britain.”

Maude on...changing strike ballot thresholds

“I’ve never ruled it out. There aren’t many places where it’s been done. And there are risks in doing it in the sense that you do it and unions that get a majority, or reach a threshold, have then got a greater degree of legitimacy.”

Maude on...over-rotation of civil service staff

“It’s as if the overriding important thing is that we should be providing a fulfilling career structure for civil servants... actually the Civil Service exists to serve the public and to get stuff done effectively.”