UK Politics

Cummings and the civil service: What is he up to?

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Boris bounced into Downing Street in December raring to get started on his plan for his vision of post-Brexit Britain. Yet, something called the coronavirus took his attention away from his plans more than he might have expected. As lockdown eases, Johnson and the Government are beginning to restart their plans and think about what they were originally elected to do. I would argue, in addition to Brexit, that the global pandemic has created more of a platform for radical change to take place.

One of the many proposed changes is the shake-up of Whitehall and the civil service, in which Boris’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings is due to play a central role. These reformist ideas sparked public interest when, in a blog article that made the mainstream news, Cummings called  for ‘weirdos and misfits’ to join him at Number 10. Interested parties were asked to email their CVs to his non-official Gmail email address. This article explains what Cummings has proposed to change about Whitehall, why he wants to reform it, the merit of such ideas, and whether he will be successful.

Is the civil service hampering policy implementation?

Cummings believes that the liberal groupthink of the civil service, despite being officially impartial, has been an obstacle to implementing Government policy that it might not be sympathetic to, namely, Brexit. He has also raised issues about the civil service when in his role as Michael Gove’s chief advisor at the Department for Education, when radical changes in the form of academisation were being developed.

The idea that the civil service can impede effective implementation of Government policy has been highlighted by governments of both colours in the UK and internationally. Margaret Thatcher believed that the civil service was part of the reason for Britain’s decline, as its size and the extent of its bureaucracy did not lend itself to successful implementation of her wealth creating policies. Blair also oversaw a large increase in the number and importance of political advisors (SpADs) that seem to rival officials, a trend which Cummings is keen to expand on.

Of course, if the civil service is hampering the implementation of government policy, then something must be done. But I am not sure that it is hampering government policy. Concerns were raised by former cabinet minister and Brexiteer Liam Fox that some civil servants had attended pro-Remain marches and ex-civil servant peers had raised pro-remain arguments in the Lords. 

Yet, that is about as far as I can see that the civil service being pro-remain goes. When one looks at other policies that the civil service has implemented with speed over the last decade, such as austerity, one should question claims that the civil service is inherently biased.

Regardless, replacing senior civil servants as the main policy advisors to ministers with SpADs could lead to the issue of the minister only being given advice that they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. 

The SpAD’s career lives or dies by the minister and this may affect the advice given. Senior civil servants are supposed to offer non-partisan advice, which may be more inclusive of other political opinions that might need to be considered when developing a policy that will affect citizens of all political persuasions. 

Many civil servants also have enormous institutional knowledge of their departments and therefore understand the pitfalls that ministers might need to watch out for. As SpADs follow the minister, rather than being attached to a department, they simply will not have the same level of knowledge that many civil servants do about the workings of government departments.

Generalists versus experts?

The PM’s chief adviser believes that ‘generalists’ within the civil service, such as those with Oxbridge humanities degrees, are not knowledgeable enough to effectively provide good policy advice and ideas to their ministers. 

Cummings has argued that generalists should be replaced by external experts with data-driven and scientific degrees, particularly in maths, computer science and physics. He believes that these graduates have the problem-solving skills that the government needs in the 21st century. This fits in with his tech mindset, as the technological solutions used by Vote Leave are credited with having a significant impact on successful targeting of voters in the Brexit referendum.

The civil service is famous for recruiting from an extremely narrow demographic. The recruitment of those with problem-solving based degrees in the sciences would be welcomed as we enter a period where technology will be a vital part of almost all solutions to policy issues. However, there are merits to the classic civil servant profile.

Many may not be expert mathematicians or scientists, but many are skilled in offering policy advice and managing departments. Their skills should not be written off, but would arguably be complemented by the scientists and experts that Cummings calls for more of.

Turnover of civil servants and ministers

Whitehall is famous for shuffling around officials and ministers very quickly. This means that there is a lack of consistency in direction, loss of morale amongst civil service staff. Such attributes culminate in an inability to learn from mistakes and adapt effectively.

Most importantly, the official or minister will have built up institutional knowledge about their department, before they are moved on and replaced by a novice. Cummings is right to suggest that knowledge retention at the highest levels of government departments is essential to them being run successfully. 

You wouldn’t want a banker running a school, or a plumber running a restaurant, so why do we often have novices running our departments of state? The career progression of civil servants needs to be reviewed. One of the key reasons senior officials move is to progress in their career. There needs to be more opportunities to progress within the same department.

Another drawback in terms of policy implementation and accountability, is that ministers and officials will often fail to follow projects through. Whitehall and government departments are like ships. When they are steered in a certain direction, it takes a while for the impact to be seen. 

The fact that there is often so much change in direction due to changes in leadership means that departments find it difficult to actually follow things through and carry out large projects successfully. 

With the exception of Theresa May at the Home Office and Jeremy Hunt at Health, many other ministers stay in their roles for no longer than a year. This presents an accountability issue, where ministers or officials are not in post long enough to be held accountable if things go wrong and it becomes harder to hold a specific person to account.

‘Hub and spoke’ model

In addition to all of this, there is an overall sense that Cummings wants power to be centralised in what has been termed a ‘hub and spoke’ model with Number 10 and the Cabinet Office (where ministers report directly to the PM anyway) at the centre, with government departments subordinate. This is so that there can be more coordination of policy across government.

The problem with this model is that government departments in Britain have historically been very independent and attempts to reduce autonomy in the past have failed. Cabinet ministers are generally passionate about their departments and want to leave a legacy, rather than be told what to do from the centre.

Organisations and their leaders, or in this case, government departments and their ministers, tend to perform better when given more autonomy. If this autonomy is removed, generally this leads to less innovation and less passion from the leaders and can result in a decline in performance. 

Independence of departments will also generate healthy debate between cabinet ministers, normally leading to better solutions to problems after different viewpoints are considered. If voices are suppressed by a strong centre, this would suppress debate and harm good policy making.

Will he be successful?

Unfortunately for Mr Cummings, history suggests that it is likely he will not be successful in implementing all of these reforms for various reasons.

Cabinet ministers often become attached to their departments and their senior officials, leading to them ‘fighting’ for their departments and reluctant to give up power. The British model also recognises this high level of responsibility by ensuring that the minister is held directly accountable by Parliament for the actions of their department.

These reforms would also have to be carried out by civil service officials in an act of career suicide. Ironically, officials may hamper efforts to reform Whitehall as they see their careers and their organisation being dismantled.

Although these changes have been proposed by a Conservative prime minister’s chief advisor, small-c conservatives may object to the reform of one of Britain’s historic and great institutions. The British civil service is renowned around the world as being one of the best of its kind and it is possible that change may come at an unexpectedly high cost due to disruption.

Finally, some of the most maverick prime ministers have attempted similar reforms, namely Thatcher and Blair. If someone as determined as the Iron Lady could not reform Whitehall, it begs the question, who can?

Final thoughts

Cummings, like many of his pro-reform predecessors reviewing Whitehall, has got some good ideas and intentions. However, the idea that the civil service is partisan on major issues might be an overstretch, and he should be careful not to remove what is good about the civil service, by trying to fix an issue that does not really exist.

There are those that claim that Brexit has been hampered by the civil service, when actually it is more ministerial confusion that has led to unclear instructions for officials. The British civil service has one of the best reputations in the world for efficiency and being impartisan. This is unlike the American system for example, where much of their bureaucracy has to be replaced with a new administration, removing the benefit of institutional memory.

Overall, Cummings is right to seek more seniority for political advisors, but this should not necessarily replace all officials in a senior capacity.

Officials have a knowledge of their departments that few others do. He is also right to address the quick turnover of officials and ministers and the problem of diversity. Bringing in more talent with a scientific background to solve 21st century problems is needed. 

Again, this should not be at the total expense of those with ‘Oxbridge humanities degrees’ who still provide a valuable service. Trying to move towards a ‘hub and spoke’ model will be a positive move. As somebody who has seen the benefits of organisational independence from the centre, working in an academy school, I think independence breeds innovation and passion that is so invaluable.

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