Last week I attended what turned out to be a highly controversial debate on the future of the civil service – one of a series on various issues chaired by John Bercow, at Speakers House in the House of Commons.
I found myself surprisingly agreeing with Lord Maude, the former Tory Cabinet Office minister, and with his opponent, Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute of Government, ( who rightly highlighted the mistake to privatise the probation service) over why the top echelons of Whitehall need radical reform.
Don’t get me wrong I am not about to become a card carrying member of the Tory Party ( even if their average age at 72 is nearer mine) and I would disagree with Maude profoundly over his savage cuts agenda, but on the management of Whitehall he is talking sense. He is also a Whitehall insider and his full speech is here.
I have often wondered why time and time again Whitehall is dragged before the Commons Public Accounts Committee to explain fiasco after fiasco on how millions if not billions of pounds are wasted on defence contracts, computer projects, collecting tax, benefit errors and big transport and energy infrastructure projects.
Francis Maude provided part of the answer – our top civil servants are not up to the job. because they are not trained properly to do it. And they rely, I am afraid, still on too much secrecy, to cover this up.
They are not trained for the complexities of modern Britain and complacently still believe we have the best civil service in the world while the rest of the world is changing fast.
What was more shocking is that he proposed some modest remedies to change this – and brought down a howl of protest from stuck in the mud mandarins. He thought it might be a good idea if fast stream graduates got wide ranging training in different government departments over a two year period rather than being stuck in one ministry.
As he said : ” Bright graduates thought they were joining the Civil Service; and were then surprised to find that they joined a specific ministry where training took a definite second-place to the job to which they were assigned.
My modest reform to make the Fast Stream programme look and feel more like a typical two year graduate training programme met with surprising resistance, with four permanent secretaries, including at the Treasury, showing up to tell me that it was completely impossible.
Apparently, if the Civil Service trained its graduate entry the way high-performing private sector entities do, the government would fall apart. If I insisted, as I did, that Fast Stream trainees did four six months postings in different parts of government, then they would be unable to do any useful work.”
He also suggested a much broader programme for the top senior mandarins – giving them international business school experience – and , believe or not, got threatened with exposure in the Daily Mail for wasting taxpayers money!
As he said: “The second eye-opener was when I proposed that senior civil servants headed for very big responsibilities should be put through top management courses, typically three months, at top business schools. High performing organisations routinely do this; and I have seen people come out transformed into a bigger, more confident and capable leaders. So I proposed first that the ten permanent secretaries should go through these courses before the 2015 election.
“The first objection was that this would be very expensive and that the Daily Mail would make a fuss. My response was to say: Bring it on. If the Mail really want to object to us spending £60,000 on someone managing a budget of tens of billions, I’d love to have the argument.”
He also, in answer to a question from me, about the secrecy surrounding who decided the bonuses paid to top Department of Works and Pensions who are responsible for Universal Credit, called for more transparency. He also suggested that civil servants should be much less timid in challenging ministers over public spending projects – ending the idea that when a top civil servant demands an ” ministerial directive” to do the job it shouldn’t be seen as a nuclear option but commonplace.
Since going to the debate I have discovered he has a strong ally over this – Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office -wrote a year ago about the failure of Whitehall to do the job in this area.
“The threat of this can prevent poor decisions about use of taxpayers’ money, and discussions about possible directions can have ‘invisible’ positive influence on decision-making.
” However, the evidence suggests the mechanism is not being used effectively. Major projects where there were clear value for money concerns, such as the FiReControl Project (2004-2011 which had cost £635 million when it was cancelled) or the National Programme for IT in the NHS (costing £11.4 billion between 2002 and 2011), were not the subject of directions.”
Instead the timid mandarins query tiny projects by comparison – such as the use of money for a consultancy on the future of Manton Airfield in Kent- and are too frightened to challenge really big decisions.
The time has come for a radical change in direction in Whitehall to get better and more broadly trained civil servants at the top who would take better decisions on how they spend our money.