Reform is good, it is the Reformers who are a concern
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
The future structure of The Civil Service and its interface with Ministers and Special Advisers (SPADS) is currently in the news. It is clear that The Prime Minister is determined on reform to the way the country is governed.
It is important, however, to separate any need for reform from those, such as Johnson, Gove, and Cummings, who are advocating it. The first is not dependent on the second.
That reform is needed is probably something upon which the majority of us can agree. What shape such reform should take is quite another matter. There is not just the question of the efficiency and experience/educational background of Civil Servants, but the role of SPADS themselves, currently ill defined, as well as the need for greater professional training for our MPs and Ministers; and all that does not take into account the question of completing reform of The Upper House, reform in the way the The House of Commons goes about its business, and the major constitutional issue of the relationship between Westminster and the three devolved governments, brought into high relief during the present pandemic crisis. Large questions indeed. It is unclear whether the present Government has the intention of root and branch reform or only a limited 'attack' on The Civil Service. If the latter, then it will prove an opportunity missed.
The last time we had major reform of The Civil Service was the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Reforms published in 1854 and enacted by Gladstone in 1870. The reason behind these reforms was that the earlier system of patronage and money to obtain positions in the business of government was not up to the job of administering Britain's vast Empire. The Reforms drew on the Chinese Imperial Civil Service, in particular the idea of public examinations and the selection of the most able. Hence, of course, why we still refer to senior Civil Servants today as 'Mandarins'.
Those days are gone and the need for reform is clear. There have, of course, been piece meal reform attempts since 1870, most notably in the two World Wars when first Lloyd George, and then Churchill following Lloyd George, implemented a system of special advisers, drawn from outside the Civil Service and recruited for their special expertise, and who were appointed by, and reported directly to, the Prime Minister. They also ran the Government with a small inner Cabinet of Senior Ministers. Neither initiative was continued by Governments after the wars were ended, although Special Advisers later developed from the earlier changes. Wilson, who had served as a temporary Civil Servant in No10 during the war, and was a lifetime admirer of Churchill, implemented a No 10 Policy Unit in his 1964 Administration.
Thatcher was determined to stop the exponential growth of The Civil Service and in her first seven years cut it from 732,00 to 594,000. Further, she appointed the former CEO of Marks and Spencer, Derek Rayner, as Efficiency Expert. None of these attempts at change seriously shook the foundations of Northcote-Trevelyan, which was founded on the Victorian virtues of an elite bureaucracy of neutral, permanent and largely anonymous officials, motivated by a sense of public duty, speaking Truth to Power. That still, in theory at least, has an attraction for many.
These attempts at reform were not restricted to one Party but embraced all, and were always based upon the chimera of greater efficiency. Such is also the mantra of the present Government, yet its language (and actions) strikes many as unnecessarily confrontational, even on occasions uncouth ('a hard rain is coming'). What the final objective of the Prime Minister is remains clouded. If it falls short of full reform it will prove to have been another opportunity lost, but if it proves to be an assault on fundamental democratic beliefs then it will be an unmitigated disaster. The appointment at the Prime Minister's personal say-so of a non civil servant in the person of David Frost, as National Security Adviser, is worrying if it is a portent of the future, let alone the power seemingly wielded by Dominic Cummings.
Whatever reforms are enacted over the next four years will need to be broadly agreed both in The Commons and in the country if they are to stand any chance of surviving this Administration, whether what follows is Conservative or Labour.
For many of our fellow citizens these are not issues that bother them, or that they turn their minds to, but it is vital in a thriving democracy that these questions become the subject of widespread debate.