This note summarises developments from September 2018. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.
Entertaining and thought-provoking, the publication of Bluffocracy by James Ball and Andrew Greenway provoked a good deal of discussion. Their targets included pretty much the whole of the 'Westminster Village' including politicians, senior civil servants and political journalists. The following extracts give a feel for their thesis, insofar as it applied to the civil service.
- By design, the top of the civil service has always been home to many people who are superb servants, but many of them can't lead or manage their way out of a paper bag. This leads to risibly under-qualified people being put in charge of some of the country's biggest and most complicated organisations.
- The lack of delivery is no accident. Delivery makes you stand out. Most civil servants don't like standing out.
- ... promotion would generally come as a result of hopping from policy area to policy area ... very often people don't see [and hence don't learn from] the damaging consequences or the benefits of what they did.
- Nor is this an accident:. High level dilettantism is government policy ... in May 2018 [a] Minister for the Cabinet Office enthusiastically confirmed that he wanted Permanent Secretaries to be hired for their leadership skills, not their subject knowledge.
- Soft skills have value, as do rhetoric and quick analysis. We are not saying that every ... bluffer ... in public life would vanish from the scene. What we are saying is that this is a question of balance, and ... the balance has shifted far too much in the favour of the generalist and against the specialist. Bluffers have a lot to offer. They should be part of the team. They shouldn't be the whole team.
The Institute for Government then arranged a mainly sympathetic discussion of Bluffocracy at which the following points were made, amongst many others:
- Specialists have told IfG that they can only get things done with the help of generalists.
- People with experience in policy making have useful experience of working with Ministers and across government.
- Experts who get a positive hearing from politicians are tactical in the way they present the information.
Other commentators noted that the civil service was in part itself responsible for allowing non-professional staff to be misrepresented as amateurs by labelling them as “generalists”. Administrative civil servants in practice developed a bundle of related skills in the course of their career which amounted to a highly developed specialism, though not labelled as such-: for example the ability to translate Ministers’ initial ideas into legislation.
There was occasional criticism of the civil service in general, and lead official negotiator Olly Robbins in particular, as the negotiations between the EU and the UK (and within the hopelessly split Conservative Party) became increasingly fraught through 2018. Sir Richard Dearlove and others wrote to The Times saying, amongst other things, that:
The civil service is not what it was ... diminished by 'merry go round' mandarin appointments that have undermined departmental loyalty and expertise. It has a more partisan senior leadership. Robbins is the product of this recent culture. A return towards the status quo ante might in time restore civil service confidence and confidence in the civil service.
Various previous Cabinet Minsters and Secretaries cried foul. Previous Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for instance, wrote as follows to The Times:
Sir, The ardent Brexiteer Sir Richard Dearlove and his colleagues, and the equally ardent Remainer, Lord Adonis, all need to be very careful what they wish for in their criticism of civil servants who have the duty to carry through Brexit (letters, Oct 17). The Frenchman Pascal Lamy, the former head of the WTO, said at the weekend that he had worked with roughly 100 national civil services and the “most independent, objective, loyal civil service on this planet is in the UK”. He is absolutely right. Thirteen years as a cabinet minister, and three working for two cabinet ministers, taught me that politicians who complained about the civil service were the ones who found decision-making too hard. If we manage to get through Brexit with not too much damage it will be the civil service we should be thanking. And if we don’t, it will not be the civil service who will have been at fault.