Boris Johnson tells select committee that pandemic response has shown ‘there are some times when we need to move faster’
Prime minister Boris Johnson has told MPs that the civil service needs to become “faster” and “better” at responding to the needs of the public as part of the reform agenda trailed by chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
Johnson made his comments at a meeting of parliament’s Liaison Committee this week that was dominated by the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
William Wragg, who chairs parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, asked why the prime minister believed the civil service required reform.
Johnson replied with gushing praise for the work of the civil service but went on to say that he believed its response to Covid-19 showed areas for improvement.
“I think that the civil service does an outstanding job. That’s the most important thing to say,” the prime minister said. “I venerate our civil service. They are fantastic public servants and I think that they deliver extraordinary things every day for the British public at every level of government.”
However, he continued: “I do think – perhaps – that one of the lessons we need to draw from this [pandemic] is maybe there are some times when we need to move faster. Project Speed is of great value, I think, to the workings of our civil service and we certainly won’t be shy of reform where it is necessary.”
The reform vision set out by Michael Gove earlier this summer included an array of changes across Whitehall that will aim to improve training for civil servants, deliver more rigorous and data-led evaluation of programmes, and offer greater incentives for officials to stay in key roles.
Wragg – whose PACAC panel last week quizzed the Cabinet Office minister on his vision – asked how Johnson envisaged such reform taking place and when.
“There are changes and what I hope are improvements going on the whole time,” he said. “But I wish to stress to the committee that these are not being done in any spirit of disapproval of the ethic of service or performance of our civil service.
“Our civil service do an outstanding job. What we want to do is to try to make sure they can perhaps respond faster, better to the needs of the public.”
Wragg asked whether the prime minister anticipated any reforms altering the established relationship between ministers and civil servants.
“No. I think the Northcote Trevelyan principles are extremely important,” Johnson replied, referring to the 19th century report considered to define the impartiality and integrity that underpins the work of the civil service.
In a clear reference to this summer’s algorithm-generated exam results fiasco, which saw the chief executive of regulator Ofqual resign and Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater get sacked, Johnson was asked when a minister should resign rather than officials.
“I believe that ministers should indeed be responsible and indeed I, as the minister for the civil service and prime minister, take full responsibility for everything the government does,” he said. “Ministerial accountability is really before parliament and the electorate.”
Wragg asked Johnson – in whose name Slater was fired last month – whether ministers could dismiss civil servants.
The prime minister replied: “A minister is entitled to make clear that he or she believes that operation of the department would be better if things were different.”