Last week, Sir Mark Sedwill, the outgoing Cabinet Secretary, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s senior adviser Dominic Cummings is right to try to reform the civil service by moving staff out of London and hiring more data specialists. Sir Mark, who will soon step down as the UK’s most senior civil servant, said the institution he runs “needs to modernise and reform” and defended Mr Cummings’ attempts to overhaul the machinery of government. He told Civil Service World: “Although I wouldn’t express it the same way as Dominic Cummings, I also think the desire… to bring in more expertise into the civil service is a good thing.
“The nature of the political debate is that things are expressed more vividly than a civil servant, including a Cabinet Secretary, is going to express them. Take a step back and although I express things in less vivid language than a politician or a special adviser, for the vast majority of civil servants, these shifts to different ways of working would have a profound effect on their jobs.”
Mr Cummings has threatened to unleash a “hard rain” on Whitehall with departmental press offices cut and jobs shifted outside London to other parts of the UK.
In a recent entry for the London School of Economics (LSE) ‘s blog, though, a former special adviser in Number 10 argued Mr Cummings’ rhetoric may prove to be particularly counterproductive in a Conservative government.
Patrick Diamond also claimed that it will be incredibly difficult to impose these disruptive reforms on the civil service.
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Outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill
He explained: “At the core of Cummings’s plan is the ambition to challenge fundamentally the ‘governing marriage’ between civil servants and Ministers where both sides worked together harmoniously to delineate effective public policy. What made the marriage so compelling was that civil servants, by virtue of their carefully protected independence and neutrality, were willing to ‘speak truth to power’.
“By and large, civil servants accepted that they must help the elected government of the day to achieve its chosen objectives, as stipulated in the manifesto. Of course, there is a danger of viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Relationships between officials and their political masters did break down, as Richard Crossman’s diaries from the Wilson governments in the Sixties indicate. Yet by and large, the Whitehall model persisted surviving changes of government over the last forty years. Britain is regarded as having one of the most efficient and stable government bureaucracies in the world.
“Cummings’s rhetoric thus signals a potentially seismic shift.
“His aim is to install a ‘them and us’ model where officials merely carry out the wishes of Ministers, focusing on the delivery and implementation of policy.”
Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings
Mr Diamond noted: “Officials’ substantive function will be to say ‘yes, Minister’.
“Cummings’s thinking is a potent challenge to the traditional Whitehall system. Two points are striking, however.
“Firstly, little of what he is proposing is actually very new. Secondly, it will be extremely difficult to make it happen, regardless of the power and patronage Cummings presently enjoys at the heart of Downing Street.”
On the first point, Mr Diamond claimed, governments have long expressed their dissatisfaction with the Whitehall machine.
He then cited the critique of the civil service establishment in the 1968 Fulton report commissioned by Harold Wilson’s administration.
The former adviser added: “The historical perspective reinforces the point that even for an adviser as prominent as Cummings, enacting reform will be arduous to say the least.
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson
“Cummings’s plan is being orchestrated from the centre in Number 10. It will be much harder to effect change in departments where most policy-making and delivery in central government takes place. Departments in the British system of government are powerful, autonomous entities, territories presided over by secretaries of state who are accountable to Parliament for everything that takes place in their name. Departments are expert in resisting the reach of the centre, as even powerful prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair will testify. Cummings may simply find that his ideas are ignored or side-lined, particularly if the new Prime Minister is distracted by more pressing issues.”
Moreover, Mr Diamond argued Mr Cummings’s rhetoric about disruptive change may prove to be particularly counterproductive in a Conservative government.
He said: “Just as there are radical reformers who are enthused by the project of remaking the UK state, there are institutional conservatives who believe in the importance of tradition and the preservation of the existing institutions.
“Ministers in the latter category may react against proposed changes that weaken the Northcote-Trevelyan principles of merit-based promotion and political impartiality. Within 24 hours of Cummings’s blog being published, a Cabinet Minister told The Times: ‘One of the big problems with [Cummings’s] pull the pin out of the grenade, drop it in the bunker, and see what happens approach is that it is so destabilising…we take several steps backwards before we’ve even started’.”