06 April 2017

Our latest Ministers Reflect interview captures the thoughts of one of the most significant reformers in recent years: Francis Maude. But Daniel Thornton says his legacy is at risk.

When Francis Maude resigned from government a year ago, then-Prime Minister David Cameron praised his achievements as Minister for the Cabinet Office.

For those who are interested in the effectiveness of government, Lord Maude is a major figure – albeit a controversial one. In his interview as part of our Ministers Reflect series, he sets out his achievements in the face of opposition or lack of interest from parts of the civil service, including the Treasury and the Foreign Office.   

“A shocking waste of money”

As Cabinet Minister, Maude led reforms to the civil service, professionalising finance, human resources, legal and commercial roles. He was motivated by the poor performance he saw, noting “how badly run procurement was, it was a shocking waste of money”. 

These problems are certainly real, as IfG research shows. The current drive to improve these areas are a direct result of Maude’s time at the Cabinet Office.

But with Maude’s departure, leadership of the agenda has moved to the civil service – which makes sense, if it is sustained. 

“The biggest cost-cutting programme in history” 

In our interview, Maude reflects that by the 2015 general election, the Government was spending £20bn less than in 2009. He attributes these savings to cutting “overheads”, reducing public sector pensions, getting out of property that wasn’t needed, and renegotiating contracts with the bigger suppliers. He describes this as preferable to raising taxes or cutting programmes and services, but adds that “the Treasury was just either not interested, or actively hostile”. 

Maude brought a real focus to an area previously dominated by meaningless numbers. Under him, the Cabinet Office became more transparent about the source of claimed savings. Some of these were more intangible than others, but real progress was made in areas like estates, and this work has continued since his departure.

“We became a world leader in the space of a few years” 

Under Maude’s leadership of digital government, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was created, with new people and new ways of working that was inherently “separate and without the Whitehall culture”. 

Maude argues that the UK quickly became a world leader in digital government. Other countries, including the USA, Australia and New Zealand have indeed drawn upon UK experience, and a United Nations survey puts the UK at the top of the league.

We have identified problems with some areas of digital transformation since Maude left government. And the Government’s achievements are at risk because of a lack of support by senior ministers.

The story on open government and open data is similar. Maude describes the Open Government Partnership with justification as a “big success” which was “hugely making progress around the world” even though “the Foreign Office just ignored it. They thought it was soppy stuff.”

But now, despite progress in individual departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, this agenda is clearly not being driven from the centre of government.

“Minster, this is a really stupid thing to do”

Maude observes that “the habit of giving very robust, candid advice to ministers had deteriorated a lot” from 1997 until 2010. While noting that the civil service does include “superb” people, he found that rather than saying “Minster, this is a really stupid thing to do”, there is a tendency to “go along with it but then don’t do it.” 

Maude’s style, which has been described as “divisive with some fellow ministers and senior civil servants” may not have created an environment where challenge flourished.

Finally, Maude talks about preparing ministers for government, reflecting that many incoming ministers in 2010 “had absolutely no idea what to expect”. Maude was personally involved in induction sessions, and “organised a formal induction session [after] every reshuffle.” He argues that induction should be made compulsory: “the Prime Minister needs to say ‘all new ministers must do it.’” 

We agree with Maude on the importance of induction, not least so that ministers understand how best to work with the civil service.

When the IfG was established, old hands told us that politicians can’t be helped to prepare for ministerial jobs, and wouldn’t participate even if they could be. Our experience has proved both points to be wrong, as evidence of many Ministers Reflect interviewees, including Maude, make clear.

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Comments

This is a thoughtful piece and opens up an important debate. The issue at stake here for me is the relationship between the quality of change management and the sustainability of the reforms. Building and maintaining common purpose and putting in place serious programmes to develop capability are essential. These were neglected as the struggle for power became more important than the reforms.

Thank you, Peter. You're right that it's all about sustainability – and some changes that Maude drove have survived better than others. Money has certainly been saved, though this hasn't been without side-effects. I think the jury's out on digital government. On open government, the jury's in and it's clear that the centre isn't driving things (which is partly about this government's style and the decision to hold Brexit tight). Institutions like GDS help to sustain changes, but aren't the whole answer. Let's continue the discussion!

Maude appeared at an auspicious moment. 35 years in the civil service taught me that changes took place in a series of waves - sometimes in opposing directions, if that isn't too confusing. The mid-to late 1990s was a period of delegation - nor least of HR terms and conditions - driven by the "centre" in its continuing drive to cut costs, while complicating organisational structures and probably ending up more expensive than what they replaced. Ditto procurement, where the Conservatives got rid of the PSA and delegated procurement to departments & agencies, under the loose suzerainty of the OGC. Similarly, IT was outsourced to a variety of providers in different ways and with no scope for the benefits which a centralised procurement would have provided. Similarly, central IT was enfeebled, with departments being encouraged to adopt common strategies. You might at some stage examine information management in the early noughties to see how this worked (or not).

I don't agree with Maude that the change in civil service attitudes to ministers started after Labour came into office in 1997. I can think of several examples where ministers came up with silly, unnecessary or entirely political proposals, e.g. for legislation to which senior officials happily acceded. And when civil servants get at least one new "intitiative" or "reform programme" every year or so, it's not entirely surprising that they keep their heads down and wait for the next one to come along.

I also feel that Maude has a too limited view of the state. I may well have missed it, but I assume the IfG have looked at "The Entrepreneurial State" by Mariana Mazzucato - which covers an important aspect of government which current orthodoxies ignore.