Labour should take up the mantle of radical civil service reform

Ed Miliband must help shape a cross-party agreement on the civil service that turns it into a tool to support social democratic governance in the future.

Civil service reform has traditionally been the business of well-appointed London seminar rooms: the kind of backroom issue that seems vitally important to ministers and mandarins, but has no resonance on the doorstep. The sheer lack of public interest means that the great departments of state have gone without serious reform for at least a quarter of a century and have consequently decayed until they can no longer bear the strain of modern government.

This situation may finally be about to change. Steve Hilton’s comments about the failings of the Whitehall machine, reported this weekend, seem to have catalysed the beginnings of a cross-party consensus for reform. Tony Blair has already joined the off-the-record voices of coalition secretaries of state in calling for serious change.

The coalition has undergone a Damascene conversion: in opposition, key figures tended to assume that the only problem with Whitehall was its mismanagement by Labour. The Tories are radically reducing the size of the civil service, but beyond this they have only offered micro-reform. Francis Maude once justified the creation of a weak Downing Street by reference to his own experience as a junior minister in the 1980s, a time when the gentlemen who ran departments were untroubled by overbearing Blairite management consultancy.

Given this background, it would be easy for Ed Miliband to take an oppositionalist stance and accuse the coalition of seeking to debauch the supposedly great traditions of Whitehall. His own experience as climate change secretary should tell him that this is a mistake. But if he needs any further convincing he should consult some of his fellow former Labour ministers, who tend to exhibit a mixture of exasperation and bitterness when talking about their former officials.

Labour’s goal should instead be to shape a cross-party agreement on the civil service that turns it into a tool to support social democratic governance in the future.

There are two problems that need to be addressed. The first is that the civil service lacks serious accountability. The current structures of Whitehall means permanent secretaries are accountable to their secretaries of state, who are in turn accountable to parliament. But in practice the demands of political neutrality mean that ministers cannot sack or discipline officials.

There are ways around this problem – at least one Labour secretary of state disliked their perm sec so much they refused to allow them into ministerial meetings for months on end. But this is a poor substitute for a properly organised system of clear performance goals and proper accountability for meeting them. Labour should therefore support a greater say for ministers in official appointments and performance reviews, and perhaps even the framing and publishing of performance agreements with permanent secretaries.

Any deal on civil service reform must also address the question of political advisers. The coalition has come to deeply regret its self-denying pledge to reduce the number of spads. The sheer complexity of modern government means that ministers need more advisers to help them master their briefs – think of  Hilton’s foot high pile of papers, representing a couple of days of civil service paperwork. Just as importantly, only a handful of senior officials can ever have significant exposure to their secretary of state, leaving many policy makers to frame their proposals by reading Michael Gove’s newspaper articles. Good political advisers are not the vampiric spin doctors of tabloid fable, but policy specialists who provide a link between ministers and their officials. There should be a lot more of them.

Addressing the accountability issue would ensure that ministers are able to push their policies through the Whitehall machine more effectively, but it is only half the challenge. To actually make change happen on the ground, you have to find a way to engage with NHS trusts, local authorities and schools. The second issue Labour must address is the absurdly siloed nature of Whitehall, where effective policy making too often comes second to maintaining the integrity of departmental baronies.

Most big policy issues cross departmental lines – helping a child out of poverty requires local authorities to work with the NHS, police and schools. But at the moment the fragmentation of Whitehall policy making makes coordination far too difficult, leading to poor outcomes and rampant inefficiency. For instance, a recent study from the Local Government Association showed that better integration of skills, social care and families policy could save more than £20bn over five years.

The solution is to reform Whitehall structures. One of the most persistent myths of British government is the idea that it has an overweening central triumvirate of departments – No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The truth is that the PM can, if they wish to, wield a large amount of personal power, but the administrative support they receive from Downing Street and the Cabinet Office is unusually weak in international comparison.

So Labour should support a radical strengthening of the Cabinet Office to turn it into a Department of Strategy and Capability, which would be charged with civil service reform, coordinating policy in line with the government’s programme and ruthlessly managing a small number of cross-cutting goals. There could even be virtual ministries housed at the centre, which would commission policy advice from across departments and go beyond into the worlds of think tanks and academia. In a world where there will not be much money available, Labour should focus on five or six big challenges, rather than engaging in the sometimes undisciplined splurging of the Blair years.

Labour has a proud tradition of civil service reform. The Fulton inquiry of the 1960s was arguably the last radical attempt to shake-up the upper policy making echelons of the mandarinate. It is time for Miliband to take up the reformist mantle once again, and help forge a badly-needed consensus on how to modernise our once-great institutions of state.

David Cameron's former director of strategy Steve Hilton complained that "the bureaucracy masters the politicians". Photograph: Getty Images.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

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