The Reformation of Whitehall

Amber Khan discusses the government's plans to reform the Civil Service. 

We have seen the ignominious contempt Johnson and his government have for institutions such as Parliament and the Judiciary. So perhaps it comes as little wonder that the Civil Service is up next on the Number 10 hitlist of political institutions to desecrate.  Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic,  Johnson & Co continue their fight to reshape the Civil Service to align with their vision of government. Dominic Cummings has been recently quoted as saying a "hard rain is coming" to No 10 and the Cabinet Office.

The reasons for reform are two-fold, with the government looking to streamline the machinery of the Whitehall, as well as making sure civil servants are ideologically aligned with the views and aims of the current administration. One might observe that Johnson seems to have a very low tolerance for dissenting views, purging his cabinet, his party, and now the civil service of Europhiles. Strange, given Johnson’s own capricious nature.

The defenestration of Sajid Javid earlier this year gave us one of the first indications of the measures the government was willing to take in the pursuit of their reforms. It also incidentally served to remind us of Cummings pervasive and authoritative hold over the Government. Since February, permanent secretaries Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office, and Philip Rutnam at the Home Office have also been ousted from their positions. The resignation of the head of the Civil Service and national security advisor, Mark Sedwill is but the most recent blow to the Whitehall machine by Number 10. Prior to his departure, Downing Street sources sought to undermine Sedwill via anonymous briefings detailing how he had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis to newspapers. This demonstrates how the government seeks to cynically absolve itself of the catastrophic response to Covid-19 and place the blame squarely on the Civil Service instead. Indeed, a report found that Ministers consistently failed to protect civil servants from unprecedented professional and personal attacks from MPs and the media.

Gone are the days of a Civil Service who, by virtue of their carefully protected independence and impartiality, were able to work with various governments to deliver public policy effectively, as well as being willing and able to challenge Ministers when they felt a course of action was wrong. This is to be swiftly replaced by a deluge of acolytes that worship at the altar of a hard Brexit, and will blithely conform to rather than take an active role in a collegiate process.

Johnson is, as ever, content to leave the mundane minutiae of policy to more hardened ideologues, presumably because he is tied up brushing up on his arcane references and practicing three-word slogans in the mirror. Thus, the chief architects of the sweeping reforms to come are Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. Cummings has long lamented the Civil Service machinery in his bizarre but entertaining blog, in which he refers to the Civil Service as ‘the blob’ and questions the very principle of a permanent Civil Service. Equally, there seems to be little love lost between some of the Civil Service and the current government as evidenced by the rouge Civil Service tweet a few months ago.

Michael Gove became the first minister to publicly address the long-considered reforms, in his Ditchley Annual Lecture where he outlined the reform agenda for the Civil Service. He emphasised the skills gap, which is to be plugged by the hiring of more mathematicians, statisticians, data scientists, and others from the physical sciences. He also discussed the need for a Civil Service with greater diversity, that is representative of the country at large, as opposed to the assumed liberal stance of inner-city dwellers. Furthermore, the government posits that to rebuild the country post-Covid-19 will require a better bureaucracy than the one currently in place, and therefore the size of cabinet and number of government departments must be cut. Undeniably, these criticisms ring as patently true. Genuine reform that removes the byzantine structures of Whitehall, decentralises power from London, champions voices from the science and business sectors, and is representative of a true cross-section of the country are clearly laudable goals to work towards.

However, there seems to be a huge disparity between what the government says and what the government actually does. Indeed, it was Michael Gove who stated that top officials should be “as knowledgeable as a consultant surgeon” about their areas of responsibility. It was the very same Michael Gove who then ardently defended the appointment of chief Brexit negotiator David Frost to national security advisor, despite it being a role for which Frost is supremely unqualified. Much to the horror of Theresa May, who was filled with more indignation and righteous anger than we ever saw during her premiership. It is also worth noting that both Johnson and Gove have a long track record of handing jobs to trusted friends, therefore Frost may be the first of many mandarins with personal ties to their political masters.

The politicisation of Civil Service appointments comes with evident dangers and we would do well to heed lessons from our American counterparts, who have to contend with changing a long list of officials when a new President is elected, extended vacancies, loss of expertise and serious damage to diplomatic relations. Seeking to emulate Trump’s administration, which is hardly a model on good governance, does not bode well for our Civil Service.

Furthermore, it is not hyperbole to suggest that the governments reforms are an alarming erosion of the basic tenants of our political system. A partisan Civil Service will be unwilling to challenge policy, fundamentally marring  the ‘governing marriage’ between ministers and civil servants.

Finally, streamlining Government departments, unless carefully considered, could have long-term damaging effects. A recent example of this is the Department for International Development merger with the Foreign Office. The move widely criticised by many as an “unnecessary and expensive distraction”, will weaken aid delivery, curtail development and hollow out Britain’s reputation and standing in the world.

The Covid-19 recovery compounded by the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looming means that our Civil Service must be in a position to steer us through one of the biggest peacetime challenges of modern history. Whilst Civil Service reform is necessary, the proposals put forward do not serve to improve the machinery of government at this crucial time for our country. Instead, the reforms take a scorched earth approach more aligned with institutional vandalism, underpinned by cronyism.

Amber Khan works as a commercial law paralegal, and is studying for an LLM in public international law. She has written social and political commentary for a range of publications and is the current blog editor for the Young Fabians. She writes in a personal capacity.

She tweets at @Amberkhan___

Do you like this post?