A few years ago, a government minister did something very eccentric. Rory Stewart, then prisons minister, announced that he would resign if he failed to reduce violence in prisons. “He must be crazy,” several officials told me at the time. “Political suicide,” whispered one parliamentarian. The idea that people in government should be judged for what they actually deliver was met with disbelief.

Amidst all the heated discussions about whether Sue Gray should be allowed to work for Sir Keir Starmer, or whether Dominic Raab’s removal as Justice Secretary was orchestrated by politically motivated officials, it is worth remembering that good governance is produced by ministers and officials who know how to make things happen. I am more interested in whether, when he was in charge of the Foreign Office, Raab and his team did enough to evacuate people from Afghanistan in August 2021 than whether their strange hand gestures amounted to “intimidation.”

The Rolls-Royce machinery of the British state has been rusting away for years. The civil service is still impressively capable of improvising: the Homes for Ukraine and Covid programs were quick and creative solutions to big challenges. But such achievements are often made in spite of the system, not because of it.

Some of the most effective officials I know see themselves as some sort of guerrilla army, navigating unnecessary consultation, letting IT down and the “quagocracy” of the corps at a distance. They’re fed up with pointless meetings, box-ticking performance reviews, and an obsession with process at the expense of action.

The prolonged saga of Brexit, the rotation of governments and the frequent changes of leadership have taken their toll. But the Boris Johnson era, in particular, hangs over Whitehall like a pall. The removal of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill did nothing to further the often accurate criticism of Whitehall made by Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings. This act of vandalism did not improve the system. Instead, mistrust increased.

Replacing Sedwill with the clever but inexperienced Simon Case suggested that Johnson and Cummings were only interested in getting their way. And the tone they set paved the way for Liz Truss to sack the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Sir Tom Scholar, who saw her ruinous financial plans for what they were.

This does not mean that Sedwill or Scholar should have been untouchable. The manner in which they were dispatched has obscured the question of how the performance of such senior officials is judged. Preserving the independence of the civil service is vital, but it often surprises ministers that they have to meekly accept any staff assigned to them, despite being held accountable for the performance of their department.

Nor can all the ministerial concerns about the civil service expressed in recent years be dismissed as part of a Brexiter vendetta against a Remainer caste. Last year, the efficiency minister resigned, saying he could not defend the government’s “dismal” record of handing out billions of pounds in Covid loans to scammers. Lord Theodore Agnew’s resignation speech was a groan of frustration that rang true to people of all political persuasions.

Government responsibilities and public expectations have changed dramatically since 1854, when the Northcote-Trevelyan report created the professional civil service. But the system of government has barely changed. I often hear from ministers that civil servants lack a sense of urgency, and from civil servants that ministers are in too much of a hurry to make their mark. But when both parties are generalists with little management training trying to tackle hugely complicated problems, mismatched timelines can exacerbate tensions.

Relations tend to improve when ministers know how to get the best out of officials. Throwing MPs into cabinet on the basis of loyalty rather than ability, without preparation, makes this process too unpredictable. Keeping ministers in office longer, as Tony Blair and David Cameron did, improves the odds.

The Raab saga indicates that Whitehall has become more overtly disrespectful. Although I’m not a fan of the former attorney general, he annoyed me that the file of complaints against him included some made by officials he didn’t even know. But Gray is entitled to take a job with Starmer, just as diplomat Ed Llewellyn did with Cameron. The real question isn’t his discretion—he’s the consummate professional—but whether he’s up to it.

A revolution is required. Rishi Sunak has launched some sensible Whitehall reforms, such as teaching digital skills, evaluating major projects and reducing reliance on outside consultants. But politicians also need training and talent management.

Experts lament that the current system loses some of its brighter aspects to the likes of McKinsey. These people enjoy the challenge of rigorous performance management, in systems that are “on or off,” the opposite of a job for life. Bringing back talent means hiring fewer, better people with higher salaries and lower pensions.

Repairing relations between ministers and officials will require a new cabinet secretary of royal stature, preferably someone with outside experience. Because unless you’ve been outside, how can you judge if the system is up to scratch? Being impartial shouldn’t mean not caring about the results. Stewart was reorganized before he could fulfill his prison commitment. But he at least he tried.


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