The government must not give in to out of touch civil servants like Sir Philip Rutnam

Published by freemarketconservatives on


Whitehall hates change. Most of all it hates changing itself. Consequently when a new Government comes in intent on reforming not only the UK’s place in the world, but also the machinery of government, fireworks are to be expected.

One of those flaming self-propelled projectiles spectacularly exploded on Saturday, perfectly timed to be featured in the Sunday papers and flagship TV shows. Clever firework.

Sir Philip Rutnam’s public flouncing out was designed to inflict maximum damage on a Government he clearly does not agree with, and a Home Secretary he clearly despises. Despite denying briefing the media, his resignation statement found its way into the inboxes of Westminster journalists with remarkable ease. His choreographed address-to-camera led news bulletins. Far from representing a neutral facilitator, these are the actions of a man with an agenda.

In many ways this event encapsulates the problem of a group of people tasked with delivering an energetic government programme that they simply do not believe in. Crucially, too often key mandarins aren’t only unenthusiastic but actually opposed to a policy direction.

Noises from the Home Office suggest that Priti Patel was growing increasingly frustrated by people presenting obstacle after obstacle in the way of dealing with extremist groups like Extinction Rebellion, and failing to crack on with deporting violent foreign criminals.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the central London dwelling, taxpayer funded career bureaucrats were sympathetic to the cause of the EU, after all there must be a certain natural level of empathy with their well-remunerated Brussels dwelling counterparts and bosses. What does appear surprising is just how accurate comedies like Yes Minister and The Thick of It appear to be by all accounts of those who work within the system.

The civil service is not fit for purpose. The clock off at four, path of least resistance attitude endemic within the organisation would be reason enough for systemic change, but the excruciating experience of protracted civil servant heel dragging over Brexit in particular reveals a deeper need for reform.

It’s ironic that so many of those whose job title, let alone job description, is to serve have such a sense of entitlement. If anyone in government exhibits a born-to-rule attitude it’s some of the senior civil servants. Far too often they, along with the media, present it as a constitutional outrage for democratically elected politicians to dare to suggest that an unelected bureaucrat should move on.

A story going around the civil service a couple of years ago alleged that the now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union was partly so useless because all over government people leapt at the opportunity of the creation of a new department to shuffle out their less-than-productive yet unfireable colleagues.

The refrain from politicians (and the harder working civil servants) is deafening. Frankly, it’s too hard to remove those who aren’t doing a good enough job. Once they are on the cushy conveyor belt, life becomes simple. Large taxpayer funded salaries backed up by gold plated pension pots and excruciatingly frequently an all but guaranteed nod in the honours system at the end of it.

Reform to this bonkers system is beyond necessary, and as that reform approaches, those with vested interests in keeping the system as it is will engage in ever more open warfare with the government.

This is a battle upon which almost the entirety of this administration’s agenda depends. Number 10 needs to hold their nerve.

Tom Harwood is an award-winning journalist and commentator. Follow him on twitter: @tomhfh

1 Comment

Jag Patel · March 2, 2020 at 9:48 am

You said it. The civil service is not fit for purpose.

The good news is that the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings has already recognised that there is an urgent need to bring back a sense of purpose and mission to the civil service and to this end, he has set out his ideas on how to go about doing exactly that.

Thanks to his blogposts, his views on policy priorities and governance are well known. He wants to repurpose the machinery of government to make it more responsive to the wants, needs and expectations of ordinary citizens and the left-behind – as opposed to serving the interests of big business, financiers and those who shout loudest in the corridors of power. The so-called “levelling up” agenda.

In particular, he wants to make the massive central government procurement programme more efficient at delivering what the civil service has contracted for – that is to say, purchasing of goods, services and labour from the private sector to the tune of £284bn per year.

But there is a major hurdle getting in the way. It is the civil service.

The government’s much heralded Industrial Strategy finds that the skills and capabilities of those employed in the private sector need upgrading, if the UK is to realise its vision of a Global Britain and pay its way in the world, post-Brexit. But there is no recognition that people in the pay of the State – the other party to this Industrial Strategy, on whom its success is wholly dependent – are equally ill-equipped for their public sector roles. This lack of acknowledgment is not a surprise. The Industrial Strategy was, after all, written by people in the pay of the State!

It would explain why there is very little confidence in the ability of big government to fix market failures, use the instrument of regulation to curb anti-competitive behaviour, manage outsourced public service contracts or secure value for money for investments made in infrastructure.

Indeed, the reputation of people in the pay of the State is further diminished by the fact that their ability to innovate, solve problems, learn from past mistakes and adapt to change, which is a distinctive characteristic of people in the private sector, has been erased in the public sector due to incessant conditioning of the mind from an early age. And, of course, people in the pay of the State are very good at talking a “big game” but they can’t “do it”.

But, what is especially worrying about people in the pay of the State is that they haven’t got a clue about what it is that drives the behaviour of for-profit organisations in the free market – not least, because they have not spent a single day of their lives in the private sector – and yet, they have been put in charge of spending taxpayers’ money to buy goods, services and labour from non-public sector organisations.

Worse still, in specialised markets such as that in military equipment for the Armed Forces, the role of the regulatory authority and sponsoring agency has been combined in one department of state – the Ministry of Defence – which means that the independent scrutiny function, free from political interference, is non-existent.

So, successful capture of a department of state by the defence industry amounts to taking control over both roles!

In no other field of human endeavour are such ill-equipped people allowed to ply their trade as in defence procurement – which would explain why the government has been getting appallingly poor value for money these last several decades.

Additionally, the culture in Whitehall has always put greater emphasis upon people who master rules, regulations and processes instead of valuing smart working, execution and delivery. What’s more, civil servants have migrated over the years, in overwhelming numbers, to the private sector via the “revolving door” in pursuit of a second career and infected it with these traits. Which would probably explain why the defence industry has failed so miserably to deliver equipment to the Armed Forces that is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life – bearing in mind that 99% of people who work in the defence industry right now were previously in the pay of the State.

Instead of doing the decent thing and educating people in the pay of the State about the ways of the private sector, defence contractors are busy exploiting their ignorance, for one purpose only – relieving them of taxpayers’ money – which has, in itself, left the public finances in pretty bad shape.

There is something very disturbing about people who have previously, as public servants sworn undying allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, only to then engage in ripping-off Her Majesty’s Government on behalf of vested interests whilst pursuing a second career in the private sector.

Remember the much-vaunted principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in public life which were supposed to guide the conduct of public servants? Well, there is pitifully little sign of them right now. It seems that these values have been left behind in the public sector for others to cherish!

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