Labour’s civil service reform proposals are wise, but could be derailed by a future coalition

The shadow cabinet office minister Michael Dugher has announced Labour’s plans for government: parties’ attitudes towards the civil service are vital, particularly in an age of coalition politics.

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Civil service reform is not sexy. It brings to mind more pencil-pushing than political point-scoring, more “performance management framework and implementation” than “stand and deliver”. But it is vital to know what the main parties plan for the mechanics of government, particularly in this new age of coalition politics.

How ministers work with their departments, and with each other in a coalition, is the key to governing effectively – and, from a purely political view, ensuring the public doesn’t view you as incompetent.

It was a lack of consultation and long-term planning, and failure to think ahead and work with experts, which led to the Lib Dems failing to deliver on their tuition fees promise (and making it in the first place), the coalition’s NHS reforms encountering so much difficulty in the medical profession and in the Commons, and also the unpopularity and toing and froing of some of Michael Gove’s education reforms.

So in theory, if Labour cracks working more effectively on its manifesto, and then alongside government departments (if it wins in 2015), it will be better for the country – and look better in the eyes of the public.

Michael Dugher, Labour’s vice-chair and shadow cabinet office minister, has announced his party’s plans for civil service reform. A former special adviser and known as a bit of an attack-dog figure in the party, Dugher has now been tasked with how Labour will go about changing the civil service to avoid the mistakes this government has made in devising and delivering its policies. Having also worked in Downing Street in the dying days of the Brown regime – “not much chillaxing”, he joked – he can bring his personal experience to making government work better.

Dugher, speaking at the Institute for Government, gave a measured announcement. Praising a great deal of the current government’s civil service reform, he mainly argued to take some of its proposals further, and faster. His most notable plans are:

  • “A new delivery and performance regime at the heart of government to build a stronger centre and drive through key priorities, ensure better coordination and bring in more commercial expertise”.

What this press release speak means, as reported in the Independent today, is that Labour would like to resurrect Tony Blair’s Downing Street delivery unit. This beefed up No 10’s grip on all areas of government, but was abolished by David Cameron in 2010. According to Dugher, this decision has made life more difficult for Cameron and co, and was “a change just to show this government is different to the previous lot”.
 

  • Plugging the gaps in capability and skills among civil servants.

This mainly consists of bringing in expertise on commercial contracting and IT – significant areas of disaster for the coalition (think of the West Coast Mainline debacle and the ongoing Universal Credit saga).

 

  • Make the civil service more diverse.

Dugher said this government “has lost sight of the diversity agenda in the civil service”, and wants to improve numbers of BME, women and working class officials via the fast-track scheme and in the senior tiers of the civil service.

  • A “new culture of respect between ministers and civil servants”.

This again is a direct hit at the current government. It’s no secret that certain relationships between Secretary of State and permanent secretary have been fraught in this government – Iain Duncan Smith and DWP perm sec Robert Devereux being the most obvious example. Dugher wants to fix this type of relationship breakdown, and also change politicians’ general attitudes to Whitehall. He pointed out that Cameron has described Whitehall as the “enemy of enterprise”, and is clearly looking to move away from the typically Tory ‘lazy public servants’ stereotype.


The timing of this announcement is important. Insiders are saying that Labour’s shadow cabinet will officially begin its pre-election contact with senior officials next month. This is an odd, non-transparent process of discreet talks between opposition politicians and the civil servants they may end up working with following a general election. I’ve covered the process in depth here.

So Dugher is clearly making the right, and well-timed, noises, but a potential coalition come May 2015 will derail these plans. And planning ahead for joining forces with the Lib Dems is not something his party can be seen to be doing – although I suspect many of Whitehall’s most powerful would think it wise.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.