Advisers advise, Ministers decide

By Harrison McQueen

02/07/2020

Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s Cabinet Secretary, Head of the Civil Service, and National Security Adviser (NSA), appointed to these roles by former Prime Minister, Theresa May, will stand down in September 2020. For some, this move by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, marks the beginning of serious, necessary reform to a bureaucratic, stagnating Civil Service. For others, it represents the start of an onslaught of politicised appointments rendering a previously independent system a mockery.

Whether or not you believe that the Civil Service is in ‘mortal danger’, one thing is clear – with a major Whitehall shakeup reportedly on the horizon, we are certain to see some significant restructuring. Whether this is for the better, remains to be seen.

In 1854, the Northcote-Trevelyan report made some key recommendations for a disunified Civil Service, rife with patronage:

· recruitment should be entirely meritocratic through open, competitive examinations

· entrants should be recruited to a unified Civil Service, to allow transfers between the different departments

· recruits should be placed into a hierarchical structure of classes and grades

· promotion should occur based on merit, not “preferment, patronage or purchase”

These reforms may not have been implemented immediately, but they have certainly shaped how the Civil Service was to be run for the next 165 years. For example, entry by examination was mandatory for parts of the Civil Service right up until the 1980s. We still see open, competitive examinations to this day.

The UK’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, will be taking up the role of NSA in Sir Mark’s place – a political appointment that has caused a great deal of concern, including with former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell. In his own words, “political appointees are more likely to be subject to groupthink [and] yes men”. Herein lies a serious problem.

The British Civil Service is world-renowned for its impartiality and ability to work with policies and personalities no matter who the governing party is. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, called the concept of a permanent civil service “one for the history books”. It would seem that short-term appointees may be on the cards for this government. This could ‘clear’ a lot of the public’s anger towards the ‘unaccountable’, ‘blocking’ Civil Service, especially those supporting the Prime Minister’s negotiating position on Brexit. Equally, it is likely to enrage the 48% that voted to Remain, and be seen as further evidence of those on the Vote Leave side of the argument ‘stacking the deck.’

Reform will not be solely structural. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, has railed against our “metropolitan” government being “estranged” from ordinary voters. He has also spoken of the lack of civil servants with appropriate expertise or qualifications to tackle “mathematical, statistical and probability questions”, something he believes to be crucial for making decisions on public policy. These calls echo Gove’s former Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings, who blogged about hiring more “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” into the Civil Service.

It is quite clear that we will be seeing some significant Whitehall reforms over the coming months. Whether or not the Civil Service will be repopulated with “weirdos and misfits”, we don’t yet know. But one thing is clear – there will be an attempt to revolutionise the age-old status quo, an assault launched by the man that won the Brexit debate and led the Conservatives to a landslide victory in the 2019 general election. Lord O’Donnell may well be right to be “worried”, but in the age of Trump, is anyone outside of the Westminster bubble watching?

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