20 November 2012

Civil service strengths and traditions appear to be challenged by more than the chemistry and physics that the UK Cabinet Office Minister Rt Hon Francis Maude spoke about during his New Zealand visit earlier this month. The Guardian and the Telegraph today carry articles on the changes being driven by Ministers, apparently seeking more than the “accountability” which was the mantra for change until recently.

They report the Prime Minister’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry about placing the public sector “on a war footing”, of “launching a fresh attack on planning rules”, attacking “risk averse” civil servants and the “bureaucratic rubbish” imposed by Whitehall on businesses.

Last year Mr Cameron described civil servants as the “enemies of enterprise”. Today he is accusing some officials of impeding growth by foisting paperwork on businesses and delaying vital decisions for procedural reasons.  

Mr Cameron said that Whitehall must undergo a “…revolution,.. just as it did in wartime, when normal rules were circumvented…convention was thrown out… Everything was thrown at the overriding purpose of beating Hitler. Well, this country is in the economic equivalent of war today – and we need the same spirit…”

He is not blaming all civil servants saying that some of the officials he has worked with are “…as creative and enterprising as any entrepreneur”.  He considers Whitehall as a whole to have become too sluggish, and is frustrated “with a lot of … bureaucratic rubbish…Whitehall has become too risk-averse; too willing to say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’…”

Which creates the climate for a vituperative columnist in the Guardian to suggest that the Head of the civil service will be unable to deliver corporate leadership based on “engagement…resilience… and change” that he often talks about .

“Kerslake’s problem is, to put it personally, Francis Maude… It’s not just that Maude is directly interventionist in certain areas of civil service management, it’s the suspicion that Ministers don’t share Kerslake’s vision … of a smaller… better integrated and more effective Whitehall…some ministers have no idea where they are going and probably don’t care..”

“We will no longer have a “system” for spending and public services,.. making the role of central departments even less coherent than it is now. Kerslake’s problem becomes one of identifying just what departments’ missions are: in the throes of downsizing and change, as the public service empire splits and shudders, just what are their prime objectives…”  

That sounds like a system breakdown, no less severe than the “organ rejection” Mr Maude referred to in his presentation on civil service reform when in Wellington …