Mon, 15 April 2024

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By Bishop of Leeds
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Dominic Cummings' ‘bombast’ risks unnecessary war with civil service

5 min read

Government hubris over civil service reform risks unnecessary conflict, a reform programme must recognise the strengths as well as the weaknesses and engage civil servants in the process of change, writes Lord Kerslake. 

The outcome of the General Election has left Boris Johnson and the Conservative Government in a commanding position. They have a majority that should see them comfortably through the next five years with the prospect of another five at the end of it.

Given this dominance, it interesting to think what things might change that rosy picture. For me, there are three: hubris - an excessive self confidence born out of victory, unplanned events, and an effective opposition. The last one will take some time to happen.

Both of the main opposition parties are going through a period of deep review and reflection on the election result as well as electing new leaders. This will inevitably lead to an inward looking focus for the time being whilst they regroup.

We are already having some big unplanned events, not least in the erratic actions of President Trump and their consequences for stability in the Middle East. The bigger issue for this Government though, would be if the global economy went in to a prolonged slow down which, If you are a believer in economic cycles, we could see happen in the next year or so.

Hubris seems to be the most current danger though. We can see it in the ruling out, by law, of an extension to trade talks when by common consent the timetable for negotiation is incredibly tight. It appears also to be in evidence in the recent discussions on civil service reform.

I say ‘appears’, because we at present we have little idea what the reform plan actually is other than an article by Rachel Wolff in the Daily Telegraph - a very able leader of the consultancy Public First and contributor to drafting the Conservative Manifesto but not part of the Government – and a rather rambling blog come job advert by the Prime Minster’s Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings. Ministerial views on what is intended, including the Prime Minsters, are so far completely absent.

Any civil service worth its salt must be up for challenge, change and improvement. The UK Civil Service starts with a lot of strengths – the independent Blavatnik School of Government assessment puts it amongst the best. But it also has its weaknesses.

The three identified in Rachel Wolff’s article – an over dominance of humanities over science graduates, too high turnover and a lack of public focus – are longstanding issues with complex causes. For example, high turnover in recent times has been in good part driven by the substantial reduction in numbers and constraints on salaries which in turn led staff in high cost areas to move out. The turbulent Brexit process has also had an impact.

There are other areas of strengthening that are as important if not more so – the ability to work effectively on cross government issues such as climate change, the capacity to do long range planning, and the crucial need to devolve power away from Whitehall. If reform is to be on the agenda, it has to take in all the issues.

It is the Cummings blog though, with its reference to ‘weirdos and misfits’ that has created the biggest debate. There is a perfectly good case for recruiting additional capacity from outside Number 10 to create an ‘insurgent team’ that can support the delivery of the government’s agenda, even if the mechanism of a blog to do this is rather novel. There is no disguising the hubristic tone and content of the blog though.

Cummings talks of deep changes being needed but expects his work to be done within a year, he says people must commit to working at least years on the project as he will will have to invest time in schooling them, but he reserves the right to dismiss them at will.

All of this bombast risks the government going to war with the civil service when this is completely unnecessary.

My overwhelming experience of working with civil servants is that they want to serve well the government of the day. If anything the tendency, particularly in the early years, is to stifle reservations about policy proposals rather than speak out. A reform programme that goes with the grain of that commitment to serve, that recognises the strengths as well as the weaknesses, that engages civil servants and gets them to lead in the process of change is far more likely be successful.

And a final word about accountability. The late (and in my view great) former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood was subjected to a lot of completely unfair criticism from some newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, about the unaccountable power that he wielded. No such concerns have so far been expressed about the growing power of Dominic Cummings. And yet his influence appears on be all pervasive, including areas like the operation of the parliamentary lobby system where his role and indeed expertise is pretty limited.

In my experience, Jeremy completely understood the importance of power being accountable and appeared in front of a number of select committees to talk about his work. Dominic Cummings has previously been very reluctant to go in front of a select committee but an early appearance in his new role would now seem pretty essential.


Lord Kerslake is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords and former Head of the Home Civil Service. 

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