In praise of….Francis Maude

This story “Conservatives plan to give ministers more power over the civil service” is fascinating. For all the bluster about NuLab centralisation of power, it shows the the British Conservative Party has no intention of letting go of the reins. In fact, if the article is true, it suggests that in the unlikely event of the Conservatives winning the next election, ministers will be given more power to run their departments, with greater hiring and firing powers and executive control of delivery.

And my response is to say good on Francis Maude for having the courage to say it.

Out of respect for the former civil servants I used to work with, I will not highlight the examples of where my “maverick ideas” were held-up, delayed and ultimately ignored. But there were enough for me to know that the civil service was a seething mass of small “p” politics that needed stamping on. One day, I might tell the whole story.

11 comments ↓

#1 Bearded Socialist on 10.16.09 at 1:33 pm

Well done for praising a Tory where it’s due.
Nice one for pointing out that this ‘decentralising power’ talk is just that.
An interesting insight into the civil service, I’m lead to believe they’re a powerful lot.
If change is needed, can it come from within? Or at all?

#2 Primly Stable on 10.16.09 at 1:38 pm

Oh, go on – don’t just tease us like that! You don’t have to name names, just give some real examples…

#3 William on 10.16.09 at 6:03 pm

I think youre on the right track here Tom. We want our elected representatves to have the best possible chance of running the country in the electorate’s best interests. To many of us that’s more important than which party is in power. It’s elected reps on our behalf vs inertia and vested interests. So switching parties is like switching solicitors (or, as Tony Jay would have it, advertising agencies).

Either party at its best is better than the other off its game.

Do say as much as you can as early and openly as you can!

#4 Older maverick on 10.16.09 at 9:34 pm

Tom

I think if you had had boards of ministers running much fewer but larger departments you would have made more progress.

Perhaps if you had reduced the numbers of ministers, special advisers and the Senior Civil Service by 50% over the last 12 years, you might have made better progress.

Remember the old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth”

#5 The Yeti's Wellie on 10.16.09 at 11:34 pm

“in the unlikely event of the Conservatives winning the next election”

Who are you kidding moron…. Or is that sarcasm?

#6 dreamingspire on 10.17.09 at 6:38 am

Power play, Tom, by those seething civil servants who live in their own little world, not our big one. They once were, of course, the secretaries to the king. Now they think they are the king.
But, on your side of the fence, we are also concerned by those professional politicians who stand for parliament having not worked at real jobs – the university, intern, want to be in parliament progress.

#7 RobT on 10.17.09 at 11:57 am

Recognise this?

2. Be consistent

Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.

3. Be responsive

When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.

#8 Bob the Black Country Brummie on 10.17.09 at 3:03 pm

“In the unlikely event of the Conservatives winning the next election”. Nice one Tom, when was the article written 1996? I know you’re just trying to cheer me up.

#9 Carl Gardner on 10.17.09 at 5:28 pm

The civil service is far from perfect, as I know being a former civil servant myself. It could do with lots of reform, and I’m in favour of more appointments from outside at all levels – non-execs from outside are a good idea.

But it’s always popular to knock the civil service, Tom, and easy, since they’re not allowed to blog back.

This proposal is dangerous stuff if it really means ministers should have more direct day-to-day control of the civil service including hiring and firing. Most people when they step back and think for a moment were actually concerned, ten minutes ago, about how politicised the civil service has been recently, with Alastair Campbell at one point being able to give orders to civil servants, for instance, and with the proliferation of “special advisers”. The government has been talking about a Civil Service Act to guarantee its independence – I’m not sure how far that’s got. Ironically the Tories proposed one of their own a few years ago.

Ministers think they take the rap for civil service mistakes – understandably, since they take the political heat. That’s the deal: you get the power, the responsibility and the right to answer back. But the truth is, civil servants also take the rap for ministers all the time to reduce that political heat on them. Take Damian Green: most commentators seem to accept that bringing in the police was a civil service overreaction – when the truth is, they’d never have been brought in had Jacqui Smith not thought they should, as she admitted in her evidence before the Home Affairs committee. She’s responsible, but got off very lightly last week following the HMIC report on the case.

Ministers also blame civil servants constantly for things they themselves are responsible for. A good example I know about is the much moaned-about “gold plating” of EU legislation. Every couple of years some ministers will complain about this, implying that it’s an awful thing, and that civil servants and lawyers sneak it in. Obviously I can’t discuss specific examples, but I’ve certainly never sneaked any gold-plating in, and none ever is sneaked in. What happens is that lawyers and civil servants advise ministers about the various ways an EU measure can be read, and the risks of each approach. Then ministers decide what the UK implementing legislation should cover. If anyone “gold-plates”, it is ministers. And that’s just an example. It was well known in one department I worked in that a minister had lied in public about the legal advice ministers were given on one matter that went wrong for the government in court. No one could say so of course. If ministers had direct power to sack, the lawyer who did actually give correct advice, as proven by the court’s decision, might well have found herself having to go to a tribunal. I’m not saying Ed Balls was wrong to force Sharon Shoosmith out, or (of course) that he was in any way responsible for Baby P, but that case does show ministers’ readiness amidst media firestorms to be seen publicly to act by making others’ heads urgently roll. If that were easier with civil servants, we’d see ministers acting like that all the time. Remember Derek Lewis?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/mar/02/ukcrime.freedomofinformation

I don’t mean this personally, Tom (sorry, I honestly don’t), but when I hear a minister complain about the Sir Humphrey factor, it usually makes me suspect that person is or was a weak minister unable to direct the civil service, or a thoughtless one unable to deal with the fact that life sometimes hinders and delays the best-laid plans, and too willing to shoot the messenger who tells them what life is up to.

Of course ministers must decide policy issues, and their decisions must be carried out. But politicisation of the civil service at all levels is a terrible idea – we came up with the concept of an impartial, apolitical civil service, managed at arm’s length, for a reason. The more day-to-day political interference we have in the civil service, the more dishonest, spun and ultimately corrupt government we will have.

I’m a Labour supporter, but one tiny consolation in the prospect of a Cameron government was their suggestion that they might reverse the politicisation of the civil service. Sad, but not surprising, if they’re now going back on that.

#10 Philip Hunt on 10.30.09 at 3:33 pm

“the unlikely event of the Conservatives winning the next election”

LOL

#11 dreamingspire on 11.06.09 at 8:34 am

My heart bleeds for Carl, having myself witnessed much fumbling and worse by totally out of touch civil servants who brush aside the realities of properly running an organisation (in this case, the country) as they claw their way up the cliff face. Carl may well have been in a good bit (and there are some) and have experienced a bad Minister or two (and there are some), but I wish civil servants would all read their own code occasionally.
Tom, suggest you re-read the witness evidence to the Public Admin Committee inquiry into Good Government, particularly the evidence given by Ms Kate Jenkins on 17 July 08:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmpubadm/c983-i/c98302.htm
I have also been re-reading Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. Published in 1980, it starts as a a different, more top-down view of first the background and then the problems that Ms Jenkins chronicles. The real message to us is in the last Chapter (28).

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