Transformation minister excoriates ‘broken system’ of Whitehall

Written by Beckie Smith on 7 October 2020 in News

Lord Agnew says the civil service stymies many ‘good people’

Credit: PA

The minister overseeing civil service reform and government transformation has lambasted a “broken” system characterised by an “obsession with policy as a theoretical train of thought” among officials.

Theodore Agnew, a Conservative peer and former businessman, said the civil service lacked commercial and practical skills and diversity of thought.

Speaking at a digital fringe event hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank alongside the Conservative Party Conference, Lord Agnew said the civil service was “the most over-centralised bureaucracy in the western world”.

His comments echoed those of Boris Johnson’s top political adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has repeatedly accused the civil service of fostering a culture of mediocrity, where staff are overly risk averse and unwilling to put forward new ideas.

They underlined the government’s drive to overhaul the civil service, and come after it was announced former Cabinet Office minister and Tory peer Francis Maude was conducting a review to “increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government functions and spending”.

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Agnew – whose role is split across the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury – was appointed minister for efficiency and transformation in February with a brief to support Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and chief Treasury secretary Steve Barclay “to deliver cross-government efficiency and public sector transformation improvements”.

For several months he also held ministerial responsibility for the Government Digital Service, before fellow junior minister Julia Lopez returned from maternity leave to take the reins.

Speaking to Conservative activists this weekend, Agnew said: "It’s important to stress at the outset that while I think that the system is broken, it’s not the people, and good people are trapped inside the system. The mandarins who defend the status quo speak lovingly of this thing called the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms as though they happened 10 years ago, actually they published that report in 1853. Unbeknown to some of these people at the top of the civil service, things have actually moved on."

He added: "180 years ago, they put in place some rigour in terms of exams for promotion and a lot of that has been watered down and we don’t have proper technical assessments before promotions are made. And, so, this results in a desperate shortage of practical, commercial skills, financial procurement and contract management."

He said a recent “spat… on consultants and the addiction to consultancy sums it up”.

Last week, it emerged that Agnew had written to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm and chief commercial officer Gareth Rhys Williams chastising them for what he called an “unacceptable” over-reliance on consultants.

The overuse of external consultants is “providing poor value for money” and “infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”, the letter said.

Speaking this weekend, he added: "It’s better to be in a state of learned helplessness and hire consultants than support civil servants in developing the right skills."

And he said the civil service harboured an “obsession with policy as a theoretical train of thought”.

"A good policy is one that positively impacts citizens at the point of use. The problem is the people responsible for implementing the policies are rarely the ones who are in the room when the policies are conceived. And of course, those most dependent on good policies are most vulnerable," he said.

Agnew also said that while “everyone talks about diversity”, efforts to diversify the civil service “misses a vital point: the diversity of geography and cognition”.

“We've got the most over-centralised bureaucracy in the western world,” he said. "And while it might be diverse in colour and gender, which I absolutely applaud, the overwhelming majority are urban metropolitan thinkers.”

Plans are underway to move thousands of civil servants out of Whitehall, partly to help rebalance regional inequalities but also to diversify the civil service. It recently emerged that Darlington could be the site of a new northern campus for the Treasury, under plans to relocate a fifth of the department's staff to the north of England.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – Agnew’s boss – also said this week that “far too many government jobs” were based in Whitehall and Westminster.


About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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