As the government launches a multi-pronged assault on Whitehall, the SECRET CIVIL SERVANT gives us the view from the shop floor.
If you’re a Whitehall-watcher, you probably heard about the hastily-deleted tweet that appeared on the civil service’s official Twitter account in late May shortly after the extraordinary prime ministerial speech defending the actions of a certain D. Cummings of Co. Durham.
Within hours, that tweet prompted widespread support for the brave soul who had dared dissent in such spectacular fashion. It even got the attention of JK Rowling, who promised she’d step in to front a year’s salary if the Cabinet Office inquisitors managed to winkle the offender out of their civil service sinecure.
Funny thing is, the tweet didn’t release any secrets, defame anyone or criticise any particular government policy. If anything, it was a cry for help and solidarity: ‘Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine working with these truth-twisters?’
Many of us – especially those of us who’ve worked on Operation Yellowhammer or who have worked directly with ministers – raised a glass to the hacker. But one tweet does not a revolution make.
Or does it? After four years of equivocation, spin and barefaced lying, it’s now hard to argue with Orwell’s dictum that ‘in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’. Here in Whitehall, we are watching with horror as the government opens up several new fronts against the machinery of government. Three crucial developments in particular have added weight to Number 10’s reforming wrecking-ball in recent weeks.
First, the Brexit transition period deadline which came and went with barely a whimper. This was symbolic in its confirmation of a trajectory towards – at best – a bare-bones deal with the European Union. At worst, it embodied a desire to pursue the kind of damaging (but ideologically ‘pure’) outcome that the more extreme fringes of the Vote Leave squad have always wanted.
Second, Cummings – engorged by the unconditional support lavished on him by the prime minister after the Barnard Castle fiasco – now has an even stronger mandate to do pretty much whatever the hell he wants, including the sanctioning of a wasteful merger of perhaps Whitehall’s best-performing department with perhaps its worst.
Third, Michael Gove has now conferred ministerial respectability and a framework – as absurd and as insubstantial as gossamer, but a framework nonetheless – for the government’s plans to remake the civil service in its own image, aided by the defenestration of the nation’s top civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill. More on that in a bit.
These developments have horrified many civil servants. But let me make one thing plain – this isn’t bureaucratic resistance or even the natural apprehension that any self-respecting mammal feels about the prospect of change.
The civil service I joined in the Tony Blair years has already been changed almost out of all recognition in the intervening decades, mostly for the better. It’s not perfect, but it has come a long way – it’s far younger, smarter, more efficient, and more diverse than it’s ever been. Change is never easy, but we’re sort of used to it.
Our fear is more existential: that in aggressively politicising the civil service, this government is going to permanently damage public services and accelerate the corrosion of trust in many of our (genuinely!) world-class institutions.
I’ve written at length elsewhere about civil service morale, but it gives me no pleasure to report here that I’ve never seen it lower. The speed and scale of the changes being made over the last few weeks alone are quickly exhausting the meaningfulness of the word ‘unprecedented’.
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There’s the rising tide of hostile and anonymous briefings against Sir Mark Sedwill and other civil service leaders which, according to union boss Dave Penman, have now become a feature of how this government rolls.
There’s the ennoblement and elevation of chief Brexit negotiator and special adviser David Frost to the National Security Adviser role that has only ever been done by civil servants. There’s the curious case of the escapology of Robert Jenrick. And finally, the hostile takeover of DFID by the FCO – which for my DFID mates is the political equivalent of finding out that Marcus Rashford will be playing his football in a Victorian basement next season after a free transfer to the country estate of Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Let’s not even get into our ‘world-beating’ response to Covid-19, which will provide ample public justification for the worst of the civil service reforms hurtling towards us.
All of this points to a ravening politicisation of the civil service and to what Jonathan Powell recently called a ‘rolling coup’ against our cherished institutions.
No wonder more civil servants feel compelled to speak up. But don’t be fooled: writing snarky columns like this one isn’t what gets me – or any other pissed-off civil servant – up in the morning.
What motivates us is – like any other worker – being left alone to do our jobs, whether that’s planning roads, schools, hospitals or trade policy. We’re not robots. Being a civil servant means getting to the facts and providing the best service we can to the public.
Most of all – especially when presenting realistic options for ministers to take decisions on – it means being free to tell the truth.
That means that the UK civil service can only ever be as good as the ministers who oversee it. There is no shortage of ideas to improve the civil service. But no system or organisation – no matter how efficient or sophisticated, can be made fool-proof against wilful stupidity or malice. Having a plan for tackling poor civil service performance is a great idea – but only as long as there is also a plan for dealing with poor ministers.
Which brings me back to Michael Gove’s speech. Some might point to his recent Ditchley Park lecture as evidence of this government’s commitment to data, innovation, fairness and renewal.
Sure, he rightly bemoaned ‘systemic problems’ in the civil service and called for more risk-taking and radical experimentation as potential cures to lethal institutional groupthink. The problem is, civil servants don’t believe a word of it, any more than we believe that members of the European Research Group are researchers.
When seen alongside the centralisation of power Cummings has already initiated, the Govester’s speech was little more than a diplomatic communique laying the groundwork for further weaponisation of evidence, research and facts in the service of pre-determined, politically-convenient outcomes. Boris Johnson already has a sycophantic cabinet. Will a sycophantic civil service stuffed full of political appointees prepare us for dealing with the triple impact of Covid-19, life outside the EU and climate change? We need only look across the Atlantic for the answers.
It’s telling that, even now, amidst all the thousands of parliamentary debates about Brexit, no serving minister has ever dared to be honest with the UK public about the full extent of the economic, social and cultural damage that Brexit will continue to wreak. That dishonesty – whether wilful or inadvertent – constitutes the very foundation of a lethal groupthink that’s promising to contaminate the UK’s political biosphere for a generation. Any civil service initiative that attempts to build on that foundation will almost certainly founder.
Never forget – it is ministers, not civil servants, who have – despite significant changes in public opinion about Brexit – ensured British citizens are about to have fewer rights.
To the consternation of almost all of our international peers (Trump and Putin notably excepted) it is ministers, not civil servants, who have ensured that our friends and allies see the UK as a politically dysmorphic nation that – even now – has started celebrating the removal of a perfectly healthy limbs even when simultaneously struggling with the flu. The sick man of Europe? It’s not just a metaphor, if it ever was.
And now? Recovery may well need the rewiring of government – Cummings and Gove are on to something there. But that can only be done by consent and in collaboration with civil servants, based on a mutual commitment to stop being socially-distant from the truth.
That ‘hard rain’ Cummings has promised for the civil service? It can only wash away the goodwill that is the vital glue that in some cases is the only thing keeping vital institutions going. The view from the shop-floor is that the government must stop characterising civil servants as insurgents and start seeing us as partners. Until it does, there will be increasing numbers of us who will tweet and type our resistance. I hope JK Rowling has her chequebook ready.
The author is a serving civil servant who writes under the pseudonym ‘The Civil Servant’ and tweets at @TheCivilSavant