The civility of the civil service is never more marked than in its most visceral battles. Sir Mark Sedwill’s letter of resignation from the UK’s top Whitehall job is a classic, in which the national security adviser, head of the civil service and cabinet secretary says he will step down at the end of September and tells the prime minister: “I will, of course, support you wholeheartedly meanwhile.”
But that civility will be tested to its limits over the coming months, after a clearout of top civil servants over the past few months. Sir Philip Rutnam resigned in February as permanent secretary at the Home Office after a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him and in June Sir Simon McDonald resigned from the top post at the Foreign Office.
Sedwill is bound by the civil service code, and can exchange nothing more than pleasantries with Boris Johnson, despite having been the subject of anonymous briefings for months – a well-known No 10 tactic. The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, is not so tied, calling the attacks on Sedwill self-defeating and corrosive. “No chief executive of chair of a private company would act in this way and expect their organisation to thrive,” raged the union’s general secretary, Dave Penman. “A government that so publicly covets the best of the private sector on delivery could do with learning exactly what good leadership looks like: it certainly isn’t this.”
You don’t get to be head of the civil service without being the ultimate professional, unlike many ministers. Sedwill will, indeed, see out his time with the utmost civility, carrying out the wishes of the government of the day, as is the job of more than 400,000 UK civil servants, whatever their private thoughts.
Of course, holding three of the UK’s most senior civil service posts at once was never really feasible and happened only when the former cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood stepped down due to illness. A stronger prime minister than Theresa May might have insisted that Sedwill give up his post as national security adviser, rather than add two more extremely demanding jobs to it.
But rather than learning that particular lesson, this government has instead taken an unprecedented step towards politicising the UK civil service, by announcing a political appointee, Brexit sherpa David Frost, as the new national security adviser, to a role that has so far always been held by a civil servant.
Why does this matter? Because it’s the first step towards the US system of political appointments. It endangers the whole concept of having a neutral civil service to deliver the government’s agenda. And as the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell pointed out last year, it risks denuding the civil service of senior expertise when it is most needed, during changes of government; a danger he underlined again on Radio 4 on Monday morning, warning of the danger to Whitehall’s independence.
Many previous UK governments have wanted to make major changes to the way the civil service operates. Michael Gove’s speech on Saturday about public service reform contains little that is new, and much that is true: the civil service would benefit from being more diverse and less metropolitan. Having more data and statistical analysis for policymaking is absolutely vital, as the Institute for Government thinktank has been saying for years.
None of this is new. When it was in power, the Labour government under Tony Blair made efforts to move civil servants out of London, following the Gershon and Lyons reviews, while previous civil service heads, including both O’Donnell and Heywood, have launched successive drives to diversify the service. So saying it as though it’s never been thought of before is patronising and dismissive to the efforts that have been made already. One in five civil service jobs are already outside London, although two-thirds of senior jobs are still in the capital.
There’s little sign that slimming down the Cabinet Office and centring more power in No 10 would help push power out of Whitehall. And the changes that have already been made, such as merging the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, look to be more about political ideology than about effective working.
Civil servants are under no illusion. They are well-used to getting the blame from their political masters, but they are braced for an onslaught. The sight of a former departmental boss like Rutnam taking the Home Office to an industrial tribunal over bullying is unprecedented. UK governments since 2010 seem to have got stuck in the dark ages when it comes to managing change. Rather than carrying their workforce with them, they seem to prefer civil servants fearful of being bullied out, rather than having them on side to work through upheaval.
What’s really depressing about the situation is the lack of progressive ideas coming forward on how public services could and should be run. The various coronavirus fiascos have highlighted as never before this government’s lack of faith in local and regional planning, in local public health directors, and in local government or communities.
There’s been far too little interest about what’s been seen as a dull and technical area of government. If there had been a stronger voice over the past few years from the left and from the Labour party about how local public services could work with civil service departments, maybe there would have been less of a vacuum for ideas from self-confessed disruptor Dominic Cummings. Well, those chickens are coming home to roost now. Let’s hope it’s not too late to prevent the wholesale destruction of important public services and, in particular, an accountable, neutral civil service.
• Jane Dudman is the Guardian’s public leadership editor
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