This note summarises developments in 2023.
The year began with the publication of a very unflattering portrait of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.
A few months later, eminent political historian Sir Anthony Seldon co-authored Johnson at 10: The Inside Story which heavily criticised both the former Prime Minister and Simon Case. In an interview with The Times, Sir Anthony said “I believe that the civil service has never been weaker, more demoralised or less powerfully led. The country needs a strong effective Whitehall, as recent policy failures and errors show. The civil service is a team without a captain. It is crying out for modernisation and change, but the head of the civil service lacks the authority or the experience to do it. ... With great sadness, because Case has been an exceptional public servant, I have concluded that the time has come to release him for a fresh leader charged with guiding, modernising and reforming the civil service, and providing renewed grip as cabinet secretary.” A permanent secretary added: “I’ve never thought Simon was the right person to run the civil service. He doesn’t have sufficient experience and the problem with Whitehall is that it operates too much like a court, and Simon is about the most extreme example of a courtier you can find.” Another senior official, referencing 'partygate', said of Case: “There is a view that the person at the top isn’t going to fight for what’s right and that is a potentially fatal reputational blow.”
Sam Freedman published an excellent blog in June 2023 setting Simon Case' appointment within a history of the decline in Cabinet Secretaries' influence since the 1980s. Here are some excerpts:
[Simon Case] has been hapless. I have been interviewing numerous ex-senior civil servants for my book and the unanimous contempt for Case is quite something. It’s shared by the current cadre of permanent secretaries too. The general consensus is that he only has the post because Cummings considered him biddable. He doesn’t have anywhere near the requisite experience, having never been a permanent secretary in any department. Despite that many were initially prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but as one former official said to me: “the way he's gone about means he’s lost the room”.
The main complaint is that he acts as a courtier within No. 10, rather than upholding the integrity of government. Instead of taking on politicians as and when necessary, he refrains from difficult conversations and offering advice they might not want to hear. This really matters. The Prime Minister of the day needs to hear those messages, or we end up with the omni-scandals of the past few years. But also because the Cabinet Secretary is head of the civil service. ...
Things started to change under Margaret Thatcher, as she side-lined the rest of cabinet and increasingly directed the business of government herself with an handful of advisers. But her Cabinet Secretaries, Robert Armstrong and Robin Butler, largely managed to hold the balance, intervening when they felt her behaviour was inappropriate, and defending the civil service when necessary. They were the last of the old guard.
... the role of Cabinet Secretary was now tied too closely to the Prime Minister of the day. [Mark] Sedwill was seen as an enabler of May rather than a balancer. As her reputation in the Tory party sank through the months of the Brexit deal drama, so did his. The Brexiteers backers of a Johnson leadership were briefing against him. The role had been irredeemably politicised. ...
[Simon Case] has, like his two predecessors, focused on advising and supporting the Prime Minister. The civil service as an institution has been left leaderless. When Johnson’s first adviser on ministerial standards, Alex Allan, concluded that Priti Patel had bullied a permanent secretary to the point where he quit, the Prime Minister simply ignored his advice. Allan resigned. Previous Cabinet Secretaries would have fought this decision, as it severely undermined the senior civil service. Case does not appear to have done so. He has left multiple issues of integrity alone in order to keep the support of the Prime Minister, whether Johnson, Truss or Sunak.
No doubt inexperience and character matter here. But this behaviour is also the endpoint of a long-term erosion in the balance of the Cabinet Secretary role: between representing the cabinet and civil service versus being an aide to the Prime Minister. This was symbolised by Case taking a desk in Number 10, rather than on the other side of the connecting door to the Cabinet Office. The wonderfully named Burke Trend, who was Cabinet Secretary in the 60s and 70s, emphasised the importance of this balance in doing the job well: “The Cabinet Secretary is not the Prime Minister’s exclusive servant…there has to be a central official that the machine can come around…He has to be a bit more detached”. In a world where cabinet government no longer meaningfully exists, this is probably no longer possible. Which leaves the rest of Whitehall defenceless and looking for other routes to raise their concerns.
Simon Case himself had an opportunity to recognise recent and current threats to good government - and address his critics - when he delivered his second annual lecture in February 2023, but he chose to avoid any sign of controversy, let alone confrontation. Here, for instance, are his 'five tests' to 'help assess how our institutions are doing', all of which are so sensible by anodyne that they could have been suggested by any of his predecessors
The first one - do we know who our customers are? And do we serve them well? Are we delivering what our elected representatives ask of us, on behalf of the voter and the taxpayer? Have we really taken the time to understand who we work for and what they want?
Second - are we staying true to our core purpose? Even as we do that necessary modernising, are we staying true to our roots?
Third - are we updating the way we do things to stay relevant? Are we adopting new technologies, systems and processes so that we can solve problems and deliver public services in the way that 21st century citizens would want?
Fourth – is our approach to managing risk proportionate? Have we got the balancing act right? In a fast-changing world, are we neither too cautious, nor too reckless?
And the fifth and final test – do we have the right people in the right places? Without that, we would never make progress on the first four tests.
Jess Bowie's interview with the Home Office Permanent Secretary is of some interest. He succeeded Philip Rutnam who had accused the Home Secretary of bullying - and Sir Matthew had shown himself willing to defend unfairly criticised colleagues. But his generally diplomatic and optimistic answers nevertheless included many confessions that he and his department still had "a good way to go".
Sue Gray, the author of the Partygate report, resigned from the civil service and announced that, subject to ACOBA approval, she was to join the office of Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition and likely next Prime Minister. Many criticised this decision, not least on the grounds that she would in due course be able to draw on her knowledge of Conservative ministers policies, practices and characters when advising Sir Keir. But this was something to be considered by ACOBA and it was pointed out than many previous senior officials had "become" politicians including David Frost, Dominic Raab, Victoria Prentis, Valerie Vaz, Jonathan Powell, Andrew Lansley, Helen Goodman, James Sassoon and Keir Starmer himself. There was also no evidence that Ms Gray had ever been anything other than impartial in advising Conservative ministers, and many thought that she had if anything been very gentle in her Partygate report. A lot of senior officials (and I) nevertheless regretted that she had decided to work for the Labour party as here decision looked bad, whatever its justification, rights and wrongs.
ACOBA subsequently cleared Ms Gray to work for the Labour Party as long as she waited for 6 months after leaving the Civil Service and made it clear that, from their point of view, she had behaved entirely properly.
Ministers told Parliament that there was 'prima facie' grounds for believing that she had breached the Civil Service Code on the grounds that she had not declared "an outside interest" to her line manager. I and others pointed out that no employer, in the private or public sector, expected their employees to reveal that they might in future be offered a job - for instance by a competitor.
Adam Tolley's report into allegations that Dominic Raab had bullied his civil servants led to Mr Raab's resignation in April 2023. Further comment and analysis is here.
Retained EU Law Bill
Crazy promises in last year's Conservative Party leadership elections had led to the deadline in this draft legislation (which required 4000+ pieces of ex-EU legislation to be reviewed) to be brought forward from 2026 to the end of 2023. To the surprise of no-one sensible, this deadline was dropped in May 2023, but ministers blamed the civil service. The FT's Peter Foster commented as follows:
Two cheers this week for the UK government bowing to the inevitable and announcing that it is rowing back on significant parts of the madcap retained EU law bill, which originally sought to “review or revoke” almost 5,000 pieces of EU-era legislation by the end of the year.
As widely predicted ... the government dropped the much-maligned “sunset clause” that risked EU-era laws just falling off the statute book by accident if they had not been actively saved by ministers.
This reboot is a partial step forward. On the upside, it turns the original Reul bill’s underlying assumption on its head — EU-era law is now automatically preserved unless it is actively revoked, not vice versa — which is just plain common sense.
I say only “two cheers” because the U-turn came via a particularly graceless attack on the civil service by the business secretary Kemi Badenoch.
She used an article in the Daily Telegraph to blame Whitehall departments for the original bill’s failure because, she wrote, they had focused on “which laws should be preserved ahead of the deadline, rather than pursuing the meaningful reform government and businesses want to see”.
The newspaper duly took the bait and, egged on by the bill’s original proponent, Jacob Rees-Mogg, obliged with a headline telling its readers that “Whitehall ‘blob’ halts repeal of Brexit laws”.
There is so much that is wrong with this and Badenoch’s statement, aside from the obvious point that it’s immensely damaging when ministers use the civil service as a shield for their own mistakes and as a political football in the Brexit wars — all while repeatedly accusing the civil service of being political!
The fact that civil servants were trying to preserve legal continuity and avoid the creation of unexpected legal vacuums points precisely to why the Reul bill was so obviously deeply flawed, as has been clear for a very long time.
Without apparent irony, Badenoch co-opted “businesses” to her cause by accusing the civil service of blocking the “meaningful reform ... business wants to see”, when in truth the U-turn has been forced on the government precisely because business wanted nothing to do with the bill as originally conceived.
Dmitry Grozoubinski explained the problem with the legislation in this Twitter thread:
1/ Treating this [criticism of the civil service] in good faith because I can appreciate how someone may intuitively wonder [why a well-resourced team could not manage to review 18 laws a day until the end of this year].
To begin with, no matter how large a civil service team you put together, it's not going to contain expertise on the technical detail of everything 4,000 laws cover.
2/ So what does examining a law actually involve. Let's pick an EU directive at random - this one is on the reduction of single use plastics. So your first step would probably be to find someone in the civil service who actually knows about this...
3/ But they're not enough. Not really. Not to make a big decision like whether to scrap the law or not. You'd want to consult with environmental experts, presumably to see if the law is working as intended, and what a repeal might mean ... but that's not enough either.
4/ What are the implications for business? Think about all the businesses that make things with plastic packaging. Now think of all the businesses that sell them. What are the export implications? There are many foreign markets, all different, and the impacts may vary.
5/ The directive requires a good bit of record keeping and data collection. Does anyone in the government use that data? Will they miss it? Can it be replicated?
6/ Then there are the legal applications. How many regulatory decisions and procedures derive their authority from the Act? How does the Act interact with other Acts? How is it accounted for in the budget?
7/ None of these questions are insurmountable. The answers ARE out there - but the vast majority of them aren't at the fingertips of your civil service scrap EU taskforce, or require expertise or input they don't possess.
8/ Making matters harder, there isn't a comprehensive database anywhere in government with a list of all possible stakeholders on every imaginable issue. Even finding the right person inside the bureaucracy to help you start looking can be time consuming.
9/ Finally, what happens when inevitably there are differing views within government and among stakeholders about whether a law should stay or go? Are you going to empower your civil servants to make line ball calls between different industry groups? Between competing interests?
10/ Even if you are, any senior civil servant empowered to make that call is going to want to hear a comprehensive case for and against, consider the recommendations, perhaps seek supplementary data or additional views. Time time time.
11/ Throwing more bodies at the problem may help mitigate some of the above issues, but unfortunately not all of them. Inevitably, trying to review 18 different laws a day is going to cause bottlenecks, and stakeholder consultations take time even if you're well resourced.
12/ So yeah, I completely understand why intuitively this seems like it wouldn't be that hard or that you could solve it by throwing more fast streamers at the problem. Unfortunately I think it is ... and you can't.
A good deal of government business seemed to have been conducted over WhatsApp in recent years. It was therefore good to see that one public release of Whats App chats included this from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace
“This is the defence secretary. I am not entirely sure why I have been put on the chat. Nor do I suspect has anyone else. I shall continue to do things via [Private Offices] and speaking directly with your boss. “
I enjoyed this May 2023 article by Lord (Daniel) Finkelstein
A friend of mine was working as an employment lawyer a few years back when he was approached by a very plausible man who wanted his help in taking action against Boots, the chemist, for wrongful dismissal.
The man’s tale did, indeed, seem actionable. My friend organised a second meeting and noted down all he was told. Then, as he was bringing matters to a conclusion, his new client said he had one more thing to add.
“They are following me,” he said. My friend was startled. “What do you mean, ‘They are following you’? Who is? Boots?”
Yes, Boots, replied the client. “I see them everywhere. With their plastic bags.”
I am reminded of my lawyer friend every time I hear Conservatives talk about “the Blob” and how it is frustrating their political intent. For there was a time when such talk was plausible and actionable — only for it to become a deeply eccentric conspiracy theory.
In 1987 William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, spoke at a news conference about the way the educational bureaucracy — the bit of the system that was not teachers — kept growing. He lamented the expense, wondering whether so many people were really needed. And he called this bureaucracy “the Blob”.
He was making reference to a 1958 science-fiction film that starred Steve McQueen in his first leading role. The Blob was a large, jelly-like creature that landed from space, consuming everything in its path, and with every person or, indeed, town it consumed, the Blob would grow.
Bill Bennett is an important figure in the US conservative movement and Michael Gove a keen student of American conservatism, so perhaps it is not surprising that when Gove became education secretary he borrowed Bennett’s language. With a slight twist. Bennett’s original observation was about the Blob’s size and ability to grow. Indeed, that’s why he chose the metaphor. Gove put more emphasis on its political outlook. The Blob, as he saw it, was a shapeless shifting obstacle to reform.
However much licence Gove was taking with the film reference, the idea that there was institutional resistance to his reforms did make some sense. Institutions and groups do have cultures and tenacious positions that are resistant to change. That is why it has always been wrong to argue that there is no such thing as “institutional racism” or that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.
Gove was at least arguing for certain specific and workable policies (even if contestable) and was taking responsibility for advancing those policies. And he was using a metaphor with a history in the field of education and a clear meaning.
But it appears we have now reached the Boots carrier-bag stage of this originally plausible argument, for “the Blob” is now everywhere to be found in Conservative argument, eating everything in its path, including common sense.
There is a paranoid strand of socialist thinking that believes the civil service and the capitalists and the bankers (and, according to taste, the Zionists) form a permanent government that has to be destroyed before any sort of change is possible. It is the resistance of this establishment that explains the failure to achieve socialism, rather than socialism’s own glaring flaws.
Now this sort of thinking — best left to the Bennites — features strongly on the right. It is the civil service and lawyers and “activists” and the EU and people with degrees and people who live in cities (and you, if I understood the last couple of days of Tory debate properly, because you aren’t having enough children). This is the Blob. And the Blob is to blame for everything. There’s no point saying the Tories, being in power, should have solved this or that problem. Because the Tories aren’t in power, you see. The Blob is.
This is how the home secretary gets to make big platform speeches criticising the policies and lack of achievement of the home secretary.
The Blob has been cited as stopping the government from preventing illegal migration in small boats; the Blob did in Dominic Raab; the Blob forced Kemi Badenoch to change course on EU legislation. The Blob has appeared in speeches, in comments to newspapers, in headlines, in parliament and in letters to party members appealing for their support with an attack on the government’s own employees.
The Blob has become an all-purpose conspiracy theory in which vague and sinister forces — “them” — are acting together to frustrate the brave reforms of Tory ministers.
It is fitting that the metaphor was drawn from a science-fiction movie because the Blob is an escape from reality. The reason that the Retained EU Law Bill had to be changed was not, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has alleged, because of the indolence of the civil service and the resistance of the Blob. It is because the bill’s original idea that all the retained law could be disposed of by the end of this year was reckless, foolish nonsense.
When describing that idea, a better film reference than The Blob would have been Dumb and Dumber.
Just as “real socialism” has never been tried because the bourgeoisie prevent it, so “real Brexit” hasn’t been tried because it has been stopped by the Blob. In this way, Brexit remains always just over the hill, requiring one more campaign to achieve. But if you ever get over the hill, you know who will be there when you arrive? The Blob.
The Blob is not only a flight from reality but also a flight from responsibility. Because the Blob is too big, too powerful, too hungry ever to be defeated. So no failure can ever be your fault. You tried your best but it was the Blob, you see. Blame “them”.
And it is a flight from leadership. Governments will always face some resistance to their programmes from vested interests and those who are set in their ways. And it will always have to work through institutions with their own history and culture. Leadership is about finding practical ways forward, taking your staff with you, working with existing interests, using persuasion and, where necessary, a bit of push.
To blame your own workers, public servants who work for you and whom you are supposed to manage — people whose welfare and output are your responsibility — is disgraceful. To argue that there is some vague jelly-like substance that makes progress impossible is defeatist. And also fundamentally untrue, as countless successful ministers have shown. Gove certainly did not think progress impossible.
The Blob is the language of protest, not of government. It is the language of opposition. And that is where it is taking those people who use it.
The Public Administration Select Committee published an interesting report in June 2023 drawing attention to numerous problems associated with the appointment and use of non-execs on Departmental Boards.
Targets, Plans, Outcomes
Organisations, including governments, are very unlikely to succeed if they don't plan how to meet their objectives - and then review those plans and adapt them as necessary. But politicians unfortunately find that the uncertainties of government make target setting very risky, and reporting against targets even more risky still.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, announced that he would publish annual reports on civil service reform, but in the event only one report was published.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had announced 'five priorities' in January 2023:- "I fully expect you to hold my government and I to account on delivering those goals". The IfG's Hannah White was far from alone in arguing that the PM had" set himself a deliberately low bar – while ducking challenges that need addressing later". But it later turned out that most if not all of these goals would not be met.
And then, in July 2023:
'Ministers’ decision to again block the publication of outcome delivery plans is “surprising and disappointing”, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs chair William Wragg has said. Wragg said ministers’ argument that this would enable departments to focus on Rishi Sunak’s five priorities – halving inflation, growing the economy , reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists, and stopping small-boat crossings – is “wholly unconvincing”.
ODPs help departments to measure their performance against key priorities. Summaries for the first round of annual plans, for 2021-22, were published in July 2021 but none have been made publicly available since.
HM Treasury and Cabinet Office ministers John Glen and Jeremy Quin wrote a letter to the PACAC chair earlier this month, saying departments “will only be required to produce internal ODPs for 2023-2.'
Janen Ganesh made an interesting point in an article in July 2023. The rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere in the world, presents its supporters with an irony or conundrum:- Populism sets itself against the elite and deep state but requires the state to become more powerful and protectionist: dispensing subsidies, guiding favoured sectors, and curbing free trade.
Meanwhile, nearer home, there was a steady stream of anti-civil service reporting and comment in parts of the media. I rather enjoyed this repost from a retired official:
The British State
Despite the constant attacks on the civil service, there was in some quarters a growing realisation that there might be fundamental problems with the nature of the British state. Nick Tyrone, for instance, commented in 2023 that:
'Britain is fundamentally poorly governed ... The current government wants to blame this on the civil service, but that's projection ... The vast majority of the dysfunction comes, sadly, from our elected officials ... This isn't a partisan point I'm making either. Labour governments tend to be just as bad as Tory ones.'
His full article is here.