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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear