Getting into the thick of it: Michael Dugher’s speech on civil service reform

Emran Mian of the Social Market Foundation looks at the contents of Michael Dugher's speech on reforming the civil service.

Emran Mian of the Social Market Foundation looks at the contents of Michael Dugher’s speech on reforming the civil service

As Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, has put it, most politicians who hold the civil service brief regard it as a staging post before winning a proper job or a sop on their way out.

By contrast, Francis Maude, minister for the cabinet office in the Coalition Government, has tried to implement a serious programme of reform. Speaking today, Michael Dugher, his Shadow, showed that Labour has formed the same intention.

He endorsed many – I counted seven – elements of Maude’s programme, including the idea of extended ministerial offices to ensure that the writ of the secretary of state travels wider and quicker – a step in the direction of French-style cabinets.

He also endorsed more political involvement in the appointment of permanent secretaries, going as far as allowing the prime minister to select any candidate considered ‘above the line’ by the Civil Service commissioner – rather than either accept or reject a single preferred candidate; and greater control over spending across government on common or shared activities, such as digital services or procurement, a function to be led by a ‘proper’ government chief executive officer.

If that seems like strengthening the hand of the centre, then there’s more to come. Dugher talked about re-creating the closer scrutiny of departmental programmes via something like the Blair-era Public Service Agreements and prime minister’s Delivery Unit, a change from what he described as the ‘sun lounger’ style of the Cameron administration to what I suppose might be akin to banning reclining seats in government.

While Dugher talked about fostering a new culture of respect between ministers and civil servants, it seemed like the onus will be on civil servants to win any respect they want from Labour ministers. Dugher announced that, within the first year of a Labour government, it would carry out a full audit of what skills the civil service has.

This would include a review of each of the specialist professions in the service such as economists, lawyers and project managers.

To fill the gaps, there will be more external recruitment; and civil servants who are valued will not be allowed to move jobs as often as they do now. The traditional mandarins will suffer an additional blow: Labour will institute new targets to boost the numbers of women and people from minority backgrounds in senior roles.

It’s a wide ranging package of announcements and perhaps a sign that Labour is giving increasing attention to the practicalities of government as it maintains its lead in the opinion polls. But there are two tensions in the approach that will need to be resolved.

The first is that the logic of decentralisation or ‘people powered public services’ is at odds with the emphasis on closer scrutiny from the centre. Dugher suggested that decentralisation is not about handing over public money with no questions asked.

Fair enough, but finding out what is happening at the local level requires systems and processes the imposition of which might conflict with at least the experience of decentralisation. Do people who have to provide a weekly data return feel that they’re empowered? And once the centre has the information it wants, is it likely that it will resist asking more questions and then making suggestions?

A bold approach would be to hand over the money and only ask questions if something is going badly wrong. But Dugher’s critique of Cameron’s ‘chillaxed’ approach to public administration suggested that he would be more involved than that.

A second source of conflict is likely to be the approach to the civil service. While there aren’t many senior civil servants who expect political scrutiny of their role and profession to diminish if there’s a change of government, the mention of Labour doing a new capabilities review and initiating another row over who appoints permanent secretaries will disappoint people who would rather the new government got on, for example, with the job of a difficult new spending review.

Dugher also talked about creating more ministerial roles that bear cross departmental responsibilities. That’s good public policy – a minister for young people for example could solve some of the problems that arise from the way responsibilities are currently split between the Departments for Education, Business and Work and Pensions – but some in the civil service will question how practical it is.

Those objections should be resisted; Labour is right to identify serious civil service reform as essential to delivering its wider programme.

However, what is lost beneath the surface here is something more fundamental. Over time, and more noticeably over the last four years, civil service accountability has been shifting. Now we almost always know the names of ‘failing’ senior civil servants long before they depart. Avoiding this fate does something to motivate people but it’s fairly miserable when your strongest incentive to succeed is to avoid being briefed against.

This state of play doesn’t promote innovation, nor does it encourage healthy debate between ministers and civil servants on how to tackle difficult problems.

It’s an unfashionable thing to say in this age of austerity, but alongside the sticks of central scrutiny that Dugher seems ready to use, he may also need to consider what carrots will help make the civil service into a full partner in the programme of a new government.

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

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