Archive for August, 2012

Maude’s war on waste

The government’s drive for ‘efficiencies’ looks more like economies to me.  In announcing £5.5 billion of savings (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/francis-maude-reveals-further-savings-beat-expectations), some key examples are listed.  Cuts in consultants, marketing, a freeze on unnecessary recruitment and reductions in property costs are no surprise.  But this doesn’t necessarily represent an increase in efficiency.  The £500 million from bulk purchasing may be more like it.  But this is not radical stuff.  Indeed, it is so Yes Minister it is embarrassing.  And how much of it is the usual Whitehall slieght of hand?  How much is real savings and how much ‘nominal’?

Perhaps the radical changes, the mutuals and staff cooperatives, the Big Society and the promise of new technologies are bubbling up beneath the surface?  Perhaps the transformation of Whitehall is still to come?  But, at the moment, it looks much like the changes in local government.  Stop paying for stuff we can get away without in the short/medium term (consultants, training etc).  Try getting other stuff cheaper (bulk buying, some collaborative purchasing).  Stop recruiting.

Is anyone asking what the consequences of these decisions are?  Does Francis Maude know the impact of cuts?  Or does he believe there are no consequences of the decisions being taken?

Goodbye, Sir Humphrey?

The Cabinet Office is commissioning research to look at the way ministers, senior civil servants and political appointees function in other countries (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/looking-abroad-next-steps-civil-service-reform-programme).  The list includes countries that replace the senior ranks with every change of elected leadership.  This is already being interpreted as a threat to civil service neutrality and a victory for Steve Hilton who had been arguing for dramatic reductions in Whitehall before peddling off into the sunset.

But there is a serious point to be discussed.  For years, there have been complaints about the politicisation of the civil service.  Tony Benn and other Labour ministers in the 60s and 70s had the impression that civil servants were a conservative force at best, and a Conservative one on some occasions.  To get to the top under Thatcher, you needed to be ‘one of us’ or to be a can-do official.  Being cautious, balanced and neutral doesn’t win you friends amongst current ministers.  So, why not make the top ranks explicitly political appointments, as in the US and France?

The argument is that a neutral civil service has a particular value. But what is that?  Are we really saying that civil servants are objective, unbiased and impartial in some way?  Are they really so superhuman that they can dismiss from their minds anything other than the national interest or some other higher purpose?  Or should we be just a little more honest?  Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, was very clear that the upper reaches of the civil service was not the neutral force it claims – a recent rereading of ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ was very instructive.

And, if they are indeed so neutral and acting in pursuit of some lofty purpose, why are they so anxious that their advice is not open to us to read?  Why should they want to keep so much of their work exempt under the Freedom of Information Act?  Is their lobbying for secrecy not self-interested and indicative of their inability to be as neutral as they claim?