Is our civil service fit for modern politics?

David Walker

Historically, Labour has never really bothered much with the state – in a conceptual rather than a practical political sense that is. The Attlee, Wilson and Blair and Brown governments got on with big changes to the constitution, including Whitehall, but more in a fit of absence of mind than on the back of a strategic connection between the policies predicated by social democracy and the machinery of government best able to implement them.

And here we are again. Doubtless, in the run up to the 2015 election Ed Miliband will call on Andrew Adonis, Charles Clarke and other Labour thinkers about Whitehall to join Jon Trickett and Charlie Falconer in preparing incoming Labour ministers; doubtless David Sainsbury will encourage the non partisan Institute for Government to help practically with seminars.

But it’s not enough. Now, more urgently than since those frantic ten years running up to the writing of Labour’s own constitution, years of Edwardian parliamentary turmoil and world war, Labour needs a wider view of power relations within the state. Scotland’s voters may force redefinition of the United Kingdom. Short of that, the imbalance within England between centre (and London and the South East) and periphery poses unavoidable questions to a party whose electoral strength comes disproportionately from outside the hot spot.

However well schooled they may be in the etiquette of dealing with permanent secretaries, incoming Labour ministers need a more profound grasp of what has happened to the machinery of state, especially the civil service. And it won’t do to wait till the ministerial Prius is at their door. The very doability of policy commitments – on taxation no less than on the bedroom tax or healthcare – depends critically on the administrative systems that are in place.

The peers who spoke in the recent Lords debate on the civil service instigated by Peter Hennessy did not use such direct language, but their view was plain. Cuts in numbers, pay restraint, outsourcing and ideologically charged attacks by Tory ministers have taken their toll on a civil service that, let’s face it, never really came to terms with the breathless pursuit of delivery and social policy targets between 1997 and 2010.

Add to that long run changes in recruitment (and perhaps also calibre) and the almost willful refusal of Whitehall’s panjandrums to modernise training and skills – especially technical and commercial skills applicable to commissioning and the complexities of IT, system design or the pursuit of tax avoiders and evaders.

And something else, an issue that splits opinion on the centre left and may paradoxically place Labour closer to such Tory ministers as Francis Maude. Are bloodless courtier-like mandarins really suited to modern politics?

Put it in personal terms. Does Tristram Hunt, whose Victorian studies encompass the Northcliffe Trevelyan reforms and the creation of a politically neutral civil service, really think that, were he to succeed Michael Gove at the Department of Education, the same permanent secretary could happily and safely just slot in as his man at the ministry? Not once has Chris Wormald signalled a jot of dissent, even over the financial accountability of free schools and academies, a source of anxiety to the National Audit Office. Serving a minister is not the same as serving the public.

Labour ministers will want commitment and enthusiasm from their officials, as well as technical capacity, for example engineer system change without primary legislation (Labour will surely try avoid massive top down reorganisation in health and education).

Sadly, successive studies and reviews have shown that Whitehall is weakest when it comes to managing ‘arm’s length’ government, which is where so much of the action is nowadays .

The condition and quality of the civil service is not a marginal issue. It cannot be safely left till after Labour gets power, because the very possibilities of a Miliband led government depend on how well departments and agencies perform.

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