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Chris Hodder examines why reforming the civil service is the hardest job in politics.Chris Hodder

It is no secret that Dominic Cummings, like many, many advisors before him, is itching to reform the civil service. And it’s understandable why: the civil service is not just the beating heart of government, but is, in many respects, the whole body too. Notionally, the civil service is there to enact the will of the government, but like any body of 430,000 people, it often has its own ideas.

This is not to say that the civil service is impossible to reform as many attempts in the past have been remarkably successful (depending on how high your ambitions were); however, there is a significant amount of effort required that sucks attention from other necessary places. To illustrate, the most successful reform was around 1870 when Prime Minister Gladstone introduced many of the recommendations written by his staff, Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan, whilst he himself was a junior minister nearly 20 years earlier. That’s a plan nearly 20 years in the making, albeit a highly successful one in the end, creating the civil service we know today.

The two great criticisms of the civil service are that none of them are experts and that they conspire to enact their own ideas. There is probably some truth to both of these points.

That none of them are experts is only partially true. Certainly, at some levels of the civil service, an ability to move between portfolios is seen as a virtue and for good reason. Different items come up and down on the agenda and priorities shift and having all your resources fixed in particular areas and not able to be redeployed would be massively ineffective. Brexit was a recent real-world example whereby whole swathes of the civil service were moved to a newly created department, DExEU. However, it is also true that there are plenty of qualified and capable people in government working in key areas, for example, engineers. This doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes need outside assistance as expertise may get stale, especially when you are far from the commercial cutting edge. There’s a lot to be said for re-examining the balance between expert and generalist, but you wouldn’t want a government full of experts who don’t listen any more than a government full of generalists who don’t understand.

That they conspire to enact their own ideas is also partially true. But here the tale becomes somewhat harder in the telling. It is long suspected that the famous “pasty tax" was a pet project of the Treasury waiting for a Chancellor to adopt it, but few people have gone on the record to verify this. This view of the civil service was solidified by Yes, Minister and has been borne out by the experience of many people in regular contact with civil servants. However, it is also clear that often the civil service does things at the bidding of ministers which they think are terrible ideas and against their own advice and wishes (Brexit again being the example). Having generalist ministers telling expert civil servants what to do is not always a great idea, but nor is public servants ignoring a democratically elected figure. Again, the balance here is crucial and should be re-examined, but the old dictum of “civil servants advise, ministers decide" still applies to a greater or lesser extent.

The biggest challenges to reforming the civil service are that firstly, as noted above, no-one has quite agreed what it is that needs changing and secondly, that the civil service can only reform itself. All the changes that need to be made will have to be undertaken by officials doing things to other officials. Unless the Minister for the Civil Service, the Prime Minister, decides to fire the lot and start again (not even the Bolsheviks did that), then the only people who can re-organise, re-deploy and hire and fire other civil servants are the very people being complained about. This means that the psychology of “in" groups and “out" groups comes in to play, but also the simple fact that no minister serves long enough to effect any real reform of their own department. Why would the civil service enact massive reforms on itself only to have to undo all the work after the next reshuffle/election? Also, there would be concerns about “slippery slopes" and “permanent revolution". Civil servants will need to buy-in to any reform process for it to have any chance of being successful.

As Gladstone found out, reforming the civil service is a generational project. Perhaps the civil service is too slow to respond to the will of ministers and perhaps it lacks expertise in key areas but fixing these two problems permanently is a hard ask with a long lead-time. Fixing the first challenge, agreeing what needs changing, must be done before the civil servant “physician" can heal themselves. A modern Northcote-Trevelyan report is the first step down this road, not an unnecessary distraction.

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