When storm clouds are gathering over the world economy – when the BBC can run a survey of experts under the headline “has Western capitalism failed?” – it is expecting a lot for people to pay much heed to a parliamentary select committee report on civil service reform.
Nonetheless, this particular intervention by the public administration select committee is worth noticing, even if just in a short break between cold sweats about the imminent financial apocalypse.
The gist of the report is that the coalition’s plans to reform public services are running up against a civil service culture of inertia and that they risk being smothered to death by bureaucracy. At the top of the list of ideas whose implementation is jeopardised, according to committee chair, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, is “the big society” – the prime minister’s pet project. If there weren’t so many scarier things going on this would surely have turned into a load of “MPs say Big Society won’t work (again)” headlines.
Jenkin is on the right of the party and, from what I have seen, likes to think of himself as a provocateur but not a trouble-maker; an independent character but not an awkward-squaddie. This report is surely being packaged up and presented as a cache of ammunition to assist those inside Downing Street who argue that the government needs to press ahead much more boldly with the break-up of what they see as failed public sector monopolies. That faction sees Whitehall mandarins as the praetorian guard of outmoded statism.
Back in February, David Cameron was marching to that drum, promising to bring private or voluntary sector competition to every aspect of what the state does, sparing only the military and courts. But the anti-state maximalists (whose high priest is chief Cameron advisor Steve Hilton) were held back by an informal alliance of Lib Dems and sceptical Tory tacticians. They feared that a fanfare of noisy public sector radicalism would raise voter alarm, feed into an opposition narrative of slash-and-burn privatising fanaticism and generally cause more trouble than it would be worth. The whole NHS debacle seriously killed the mood for big public sector changes – not least by putting George Osborne, the most powerful figure in government after the PM, off the idea.
This division inside government produced, after much wrangling and delay, the white paper on Open Public Services. (It was launched in the middle of the phone-hacking furore in July, so no-one noticed.) The white paper promises lots of consultation and consideration of radical reforms, but few cast iron commitments. The whole process of getting even that far exhausted ministers. One very senior member of the cabinet described it to me as “the biggest coalition arm-wrestle” behind the scenes so far. Then there were riots, Libya to think about … the whole thing just went off the boil.
But the Thatcherite purist end of the Conservative party hasn’t forgotten and my guess is that this report is being framed as a way to get things boiling again. Jenkin has a piece plugging the report on ConservativeHome today. He also made a speech launching the report, which ended thus: “We are proposing a special inquiry into the role and functions of the Head of the Civil Service. What does that title mean? What should it mean? So watch this space!”
In the staid language of select committees that is a quiet declaration of war on Whitehall.