11 February 2015

Ten days ago the British Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude indicated that he would step down at the mid year general election. Presumably that will mark the end of his Ministerial oversight of the civil service reform programme.  Despite continuing criticism throughout the 4.5 years of his aggressive programme of cuts and restructures there has been little sense of relief voiced so far by his opponents.

He claims savings in the last year of more than £14 bn, cutting the civil service by 20%, and reducing quangos by about 35% .  Critics question the real benefits, and suggest that plans to recoup $21 bn lost through benefit fraud and tax avoidance have come unstuck.

The civil service now 90,000 positions fewer than in 2010, is less well paid and in retirement will have reduced pension benefits – although many have been “bought out” with substantially enhanced packages.  Opponents believe that the Minister has been politicising senior appointments although the First Division Association acknowledges that some reforms have made the civil service more effective and resilient.

The Minister championed the Government Digital Service combining all agency websites into the gov.uk site. Although some targets will be missed there has been a digital transformation of government, gaining recognition for Britain as a world leader in open government, evident in December 2014 when the self designated D5 (UK, South Korea, Estonia, Israel and New Zealand) combined for a “summit” of globally advanced states.

Mr Maude has advocated open government as a vehicle for strengthening public trust, that “transparency is an idea whose time has come”. He committed Britain as an early adopter, and foundation member of the Open Government Partnership. Some see that movement as fast losing its effervescence. New Zealand’s reluctant involvement may prove prescient. The Minister’s visit to New Zealand two years ago does not seem to have influenced the way he reengineered the machinery of government in the UK.

Plans for converting agencies into mutuals – small, employee-led organisations – seem to have lost momentum, with mutualised services like hospitals and the pension services provider failing to meet objectives. Although involving many fewer than the targeted 1 million civil servants, Mr Maude is proud that there are more than 100 mutuals.

Some anticipate that he will be elevated to the House of Lords. Whether he will put his passion for change into the hamstrung reforms of that place may be known within the next 12 months.