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2 March 2020

What does the decision by the Home Office’s top civil servant to sue the government mean?

The department regarded as being most in need of reform is being pitted against the secretary of state regarded as being least capable of delivering it.

By Stephen Bush

Philip Rutnam, the Home Office’s top official, has quit and will seek damages for constructive dismissal.

It’s not unusual for new governments to seek changes at the top of big departments – what is unusual is that in the past, civil servants have accepted payouts in order to leave quietly and with the minimum of fuss. Rutnam has said that he turned down a similar offer from the Cabinet Office, such is his concern about the treatment of staff at his department.

Over the coming months we’re going to see one example of how to do governmental reform come into fruition, with the slow merger of the Foreign Office and Dfid. Whatever you may think of the wisdom of that development, the pieces have been slowly and carefully assembled and thus far, no one has ended up stood outside their front door reading a statement explaining why they’re taking the government to court.

The row between the Home Secretary and the Home Office pits the department regarded by most in Whitehall as being most in need of reform against the secretary of state regarded as being least capable of delivering it. But any change in a big department requires both reform and buy-in further down the organisation: a particularly important part of the puzzle at the Home Office, where successive secretaries of state have complained that they pull levers only for nothing to change.

For some, the loud fights are a sign that the Johnson administration is more serious about reform than its predecessors. Look at just how much china it’s willing to break to get change! For others, the government’s desire to “move fast and break things” is a distraction from the lack of clarity about precisely where it is moving to, what things it intends to build up and how it will make sure that it leaves something enduring its wake.

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