Think tank director claims many officials and politicians have known nothing other than operating in crisis mode
Rishi Sunak has been warned that delivering civil service reform should be an urgent priority over the coming months as the countdown to the next general election increasingly dominates the political agenda.
In a near-apocalyptic overview of the challenges facing the newly installed prime minister this year, Institute for Government director Hannah White flagged up the risk that 2023 could be “wasted” for the government after the turmoil of 2022 and questions around the viability of the government’s spending plans.
Focusing on core issues that could restore public faith in the government’s ability to deliver – including dealing with inter-departmental churn among civil servants and bringing sufficient amounts of external expertise onboard – would be productive moves, White said.
“Laying the groundwork for reforms would prove a valuable legacy whatever the outcome of the next election, but improving the running of government would not be a purely altruistic goal,” she said. “It would create short-term wins too – by equipping government better to spot and resolve problems and handle crises, addressing the frustrations for ministers of a government machine that doesn’t deliver as well as they might wish.”
White said the lack of energy behind the government reform agenda since then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove set out the Johnson administration’s Declaration on Government Reform in 2021 was a “serious problem”.
“The need to improve and strengthen the civil service has only grown over the past two years,” she said. “The civil service derives its authority from its effectiveness, so it is profoundly in its interests – as well as those of all citizens – for it to work as well as it can.”
White said civil service morale had been “sapped by low-trust relationships with politicians and depleted by public criticism from ministers”. She added that the impartiality and permanence of the civil service had also been called into question by the sackings of permanent secretaries, such as the Department for Education’s Jonathan Slater and the Treasury’s Sir Tom Scholar.
However, she noted that the civil service’s problems did not all stem from the political class, with the Partygate scandal dealing a “severe blow” to its reputation by the “implication of officials at the highest level” and a lack of “lack of visible leadership” in dealing with the consequences.
Ending the ‘permacrisis’
In November 2022, the producers of the Collins Dictionary named “permacrisis” as their word of the year, with its definition of “an extended period of instability and insecurity” chiming distinctly with the times.
White said the crisis footing that government had operated on since 2016 had become endemic and normalised over the passage of time.
“Unprecedented political turmoil and ministerial churn have distracted politicians, limiting the ability of the civil service to progress the government’s reform agenda and requiring civil servants instead to focus on inducting and understanding the priorities of a succession of new minsters,” she said.
“A continuous cycle of crises has driven superficial, reactive and short-term policymaking by a generation of officials who have little experience of working differently, having arrived during the rapid expansion in civil service numbers after 2016 (which followed the austerity-driven hollowing out from 2010).”
She added: “The civil service is now being directed and scrutinised by a generation of politicians of all parties who have never seen government operate in any other mode. The third of MPs who joined the Commons at or after the 2017 election have only seen parliament operating in the exceptional circumstances of Brexit and the pandemic, both of which constrained normal scrutiny processes. Expedited law-making, the creation and use of sweeping Henry VIII powers and skeleton bills are all now seen as normal, as is an approach to government which stretches the flexibilities of the UK’s uncodified constitution to its limits.”