Michael Dugher’s speech to the Institute for Government this week was a historic moment. Never before has a Labour shadow civil service minister set out from opposition such a clear analysis of the challenges in the effectiveness and capability of the machinery of government facing an incoming Labour government. Nor has any previous Labour shadow civil service minister identified so clearly the necessary remedies.
It is politically tempting for any opposition to blame incumbent ministers for the weaknesses and incompetency of a government. David Cameron’s government suffered from its ministers having succumbed to this temptation during the years of Conservative opposition pre-2010. There were many Conservatives, including Francis Maude, who were persuaded that changing the political colour of ministers from red to blue would in itself be a sufficient condition to produce an effective and capable Whitehall machine. As Dugher made clear in his speech, this was a foolish delusion:
In 2010, ministers were slow to start and did not fully comprehend what was needed. Rather than having a comprehensive reform plan from the outset, the government concentrated on a redundancy programme in the pursuit of short-term savings. These staffing cuts were undertaken in an ill thought through and chaotic fashion, which, ironically, has exacerbated many of the problems the government is now trying to resolve around key capabilities and skills in commissioning and project management…
As Dugher underlines, ‘ironically, the civil service reform programme has struggled with some of the very problems highlighted in its own reports: OK at policy, poor on delivery.’
To address it he set out clear priorities for an incoming Labour government including:
a plan of action to cut down on the frequency of rotation of staff within the civil service … Too often, staff on key projects are moved on to completely different roles before a project is complete. This leads to poor institutional memory. We want to see less frequent rotations of staff across the whole of the civil service. There must also be a culture of consequences for poor performers.
Additionally, Dugher made clear that appointment on merit must be real, with ‘a new framework to ensure that more jobs are advertised externally so that people with the necessary skills can be brought into the civil service.’
Dugher took head on the charge that reform of the civil service means ‘politicisation’. First he pointed out that ‘often it is civil servants themselves, the people who can see at first hand from the inside where the deficiencies are, who are the strongest advocates for reform’. Second he emphasised the cross-party non-party-political nature of the case for reform, underlining Labour’s support for the key planks of Francis Maude’s reform programme, itself based on recommendations from the progressive IPPR thinktank.
There were three key issues here that Dugher addressed: first, the appointment and accountability of permanent secretaries, second the effectiveness of ministerial offices and third the proposed new Whitehall chief executive role.
On the first:
Labour’s view is that ministers should indeed have more involvement in the appointment of permanent secretaries. Ministers are rightly held accountable to parliament for the performance of their departments, so it is our view that it is only right that they should have a stronger say in the most important recruitment decision in their departments … with the proposed strict procedures around ministerial involvement in appointments, I cannot see any increased risk of politicisation. Only a system that is more accountable and effective.’ He added that ‘In a number of other Westminster-model democracies, the prime minister appoints the top civil servants.’ It is often forgotten, Dugher reminded his audience, that ‘the proposed system of ‘constrained ministerial choice’ is precisely how the government makes hundreds of public appointments – including to highly important and independent posts such as who chairs the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, Ofgem and the BBC Trust.
On the second issue Dugher made clear that ‘Labour also support the government’s moves to strengthen the level of support given to ministers through extended ministerial offices. Ministers should be able to expand their ministerial private offices with a small number of expert advisers recruited from outside the civil service and who report to them directly … with selection based on merit.’ Dugher drew on his own personal experience as a former special adviser to point out that ‘it is clear that some of the difficulties the previous government got into with special advisers was that ministers felt compelled to use spads not as “political advisers’”, but to plug perceived skills and capability gaps in areas such as communications, progress chasing and policy expertise. Extended ministerial offices should help deal with that problem.’
On the third issue, Dugher endorsed the concept of a civil service chief executive, but raised serious concerns at the appointment as currently envisaged:
it looks like the proposed [chief executive of the civil service] could also lack the authority needed to help drive through real reforms. The job description for the newly created position shows that the new role will not be a chief executive in any sense recognised in either the private or public sectors. The idea of strengthening the central leadership around civil service reform is a positive step. But the holder of the new post will not be responsible for either running the civil service or line managing permanent secretaries, and he or she will have multiple line managers.
Dugher was clear that a Labour government would ‘strengthen the role’ so that ‘permanent secretaries should have to report directly to the chief executive, rather than the cabinet secretary, on a select number of issues – such as actions on the civil service reform agenda. To have any chance of working, the role of the chief executive should be able to hold permanent secretaries to account on specific issues.’
Michael Dugher’s speech combined both a clear-sighted critique of what needs to change and a plan for action. In the cause of making Whitehall ‘fit for purpose’, it is to be hoped that the next government implements it.
Greg Rosen is co-author of Whitehall reform: The view from the inside
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.