Thursday 19 December 2019 6:13 am

DEBATE: Is it time to reform the civil service, as Dominic Cummings intends?

Eliot Wilson
Eliot Wilson is head of research at Right Angles and a former House of Commons official.

Is it time for a full restructuring of the civil service, as Dominic Cummings intends?

YES, says Duncan Simpson, research director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The “Rolls Royce” reputation of the civil service has long been in question. From hugely overpriced procurements in defence and transport, to overly-anxious advice on EU exit negotiations, the supposed brilliance and impartiality of our permanent civil service is under challenge. 

Cummings’ previous ideas of slimming down cabinet and imbuing the civil service with genuine project management expertise can only mean better public services and taxpayers’ cash being used more effectively. 

Removing whole departments — particularly those that have overlapping responsibilities — makes sense, as long as the change is genuine rather than a game of musical chairs.

Civil servants will resist these changes. But mergers and acquisitions in the corporate world show us how easily synergies can be realised. 

We should go one step further and allow ministers to fire senior civil servants more easily. This would serve as a reminder that the taxpayers who pay their salaries are the real bosses.

NO, says Eliot Wilson, head of research at Right Angles.

Dominic Cummings is a force of nature. He was ridiculed when appointed, but the crushing election win has vindicated his strategy. Now he wants to turn his iconoclasm on the civil service. It’s unlikely to end well.

The civil service is a delicate structure, which serves several masters and customers. It’s a product of evolution, and the threads which bind it together are fine. Departments, arm’s-length bodies, quangos, delivery authorities — staffed by fast streamers, consultants, and fixed-termers.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. Here’s what it needs: more and better-planned innovation; integration of external expertise; more dynamic leadership; and better comms operations. 

But Cummings’ sledgehammer is not the way forward. He’s talked about abolishing a permanent civil service — in favour of what? Political appointees like the US? Fixed-term contractors? Chief executives to replace perm secs? 

It’s eye catching but shallow. Perfect for an election campaign, but unsuited to thoughtful bureaucratic reform. 

Main image credit: Getty

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