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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder