Whitehall digital reform being slowly undone by ‘departmental barons’, warns Francis Maude

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 14 September 2017 in News
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But civil service head Jeremy Heywood hits back and claims government departments are ‘sharply improving digital capacity’

During his time at the head of the Cabinet Office Francis Maude spearheaded a number of reforms, including centralising various functions  Credit: PA

The Whitehall reform agenda that drove the creation of the Government Digital Service is being rolled back by the creeping return of “the old silos and departmental baronies”, former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has warned.

In a wide-ranging and critical speech this week, Maude claimed the civil service has a “bias to inertia” and “suffers from institutional complacency”.

Discussing the future of the civil service as part of a lecture series hosted by the speaker of the House of Commons, he said he had been lied to by officials, and that reforms started while he was in office were being quietly rolled back by “departmental barons”.

Lord Maude was Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015, during which he instigated a range of reforms, from centralising key functions, to changing the way permanent secretaries are appointed, and creating the Government Digital Service.

Speaking in parliament, he said officials were now “fighting back” against many of these changes.

“The mantra is: ‘We definitely want to continue with the reforms. But they’re now embedded in the departments.’ When you hear those words you know that what they really mean is that the reforms are embedded six feet under,” he said.


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In his speech, Maude particularly focused on the reforms that put in place cross-government leadership for key professions such as digital and finance, noting that the finance function is now being led by a departmental finance director rather than a “dedicated full-time leader”.

“Imperceptibly, inch by inch, with a control dropped here or not enforced there, the old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging, with nothing to restrain the old unreconstructed behaviours from taking hold once more.”

The move to functional leadership was especially resisted by the Treasury, Maude said, "which in the main – with the exception of Danny Alexander – was, at best, uninterested in, and sometimes actively hostile to, our entire programme of efficiency savings".

Responding to the speech, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood said: "At a time when the civil service is working flat out to support the government in delivering a successful Brexit, its many manifesto commitments and its portfolio of major projects – with the smallest headcount since the Second World War – it is a pity that Lord Maude has chosen to attack the organisation and its dedicated staff with a wholly inaccurate portrayal of what is widely regarded as one of the world's most effective and efficient civil services.”

He continued: "Since [Maude] left the Cabinet Office in 2015, the civil service reform programme that he helped to create has been implemented with vigour, sharply improving our commercial, financial, and digital capacity."

John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, added: "Far from stopping reform we are deepening and accelerating. The civil service is undertaking a huge programme of fundamental transformation to deliver sustainable change and equip the civil service for the post-Brexit world."

 

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is acting editor of Civil Service World. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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