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Reforming the civil service needs more than a smart Dominic Cummings blogpost  

Building up a new team in 10 Downing Street is far easier than achieving lasting and much-needed reform of the civil service

Dominic Cummings’ critique of Whitehall is correct in many areas, but Catherine Haddon says that building up a new team in 10 Downing Street is far easier than achieving lasting and much-needed reform of the civil service.

With his blogpost recruitment drive, the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings is attempting to build a very different No.10. He doesn’t seem bothered by where they sit or, indeed, who is nominally in charge. And perhaps this doesn’t matter. If relations work and if the PM is fully behind him, Cummings might avoid the usual infighting of units with overlapping remits or turf wars over who has the PM’s ear.

But what this means for civil service reform is harder to gauge. Cummings’ latest blog is being treated as part of a wider approach to civil service reform, with an article by Rachel Wolf – co-author of the Conservatives’ manifesto – exploring the government’s ambition to make ‘seismic’ changes to the make-up of the civil service staff and training more broadly. To do that needs a plan, someone to execute it, winning over both civil service and Cabinet and keeping the PM on board.

Civil service reform needs to be implemented by civil servants

A plan for civil service reform requires more than a blogpost. Any changes to recruitment, pay, training and performance management will involve a combination of the Cabinet Office, Civil Service Commission, Treasury, and departments. It may mean getting into battle with civil service unions. The civil service is not a monolith, and the government will meet varying levels of resistance. It will help if it looks for allies amongst officials. Cummings seems to show he knows this by praising many of the civil servants he has worked with.

But elsewhere the tone of discussion about civil service reform seems designed to antagonise. This will please many people with long-standing frustrations about the civil service. But missteps on language can undermine good reforms. In 1968 reforms proposed by the Fulton Committee talked about many of the same issues on the agenda now – reducing generalists, decreasing turnover and better recruitment and promotion of specialists. They had good support from the PM. But the report’s depiction of the civil service as ‘amateurs’ made it harder to sell the reforms.

Reforms also need a ministerial lead. From 2010, attempted reforms were driven by the then minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude. The changes may not have lived up to Maude’s hopes, but he got more traction as the machine realised he wasn’t going anywhere, had his own political clout and had the backing of the PM. If Michael Gove retains his Cabinet Office role and took the lead on this agenda then that would send an impressive signal. If it falls to a more junior minister, they could be easily side-lined.

The cabinet may not be a factor now, but will in the future

Making changes that affect how departments recruit and how they manage their own staff also means secretaries of state being supportive – or at least not determinedly opposed. Recruitment is not just a matter for the centre – departments have a fair degree of flexibility about who they want to bring in and what jobs to fill. Civil service training is currently a mix of centralised core skills and individually commissioned training programmes in every department. The reforms could quickly fall foul of the age-old debate about how far the civil service should or can be centralised. That itself can easily become a proxy for a battle between ministers and the PM.

The onus is currently with the PM. With a major reshuffle looming next month, ministers will be focused on whether or not they are keeping their jobs. But while they may be cowed for now, after that reshuffle they may turn back to building their own departmental powerbases. As such, departments, especially those shaped and led by influential secretaries of state, will respond in different ways to plans for reform. However far Cummings's writ runs in the centre, he could find it hard to ensure all ministers stay on board if the PM is not using his own political capital to drive change.

Will the PM stay the course on civil service reform?

If Boris Johnson sees reform of Whitehall as the means to deliver his agenda then he will embrace the plans. PMs can often be enthusiastic for reform when they trust the person in charge of delivering it, and when they lead a government from a position of strength.

But any civil service reform also needs to consider what happens when the PM‘s energies are dragged in other directions. Fire-fighting a political crisis at home or being drawn into major world events will inevitably bump civil service reform out of the grid. Cummings wants a new approach to communication that isn’t trying to ‘control the narrative’, but it is hard for any PM to resist being dragged into ‘events’. At some point the PM will need to choose whether to push ahead with civil service reform when it clashes with his other priorities. 

As Wolf argued, ‘in five years [the government] won’t be judged on the way the Civil Service is designed but on whether it has delivered on its promises’. Getting the best out of the civil service is crucial to delivering those policies, but grand plans for civil service reform take time to deliver results, and can quickly be knocked off course. Dominic Cummings’ job advert only scratches the surface of the challenges involved.

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