A war on waste and yet more tweeting won’t be enough to rejuvenate an ailing civil service

Jane Dudman
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

A decade ago, staff at the Greater London Authority were regularly treated to the sight of the mayor of London eating his lunch in the canteen. Urbane and sociable, Boris Johnson enjoyed being the figurehead of one of the world’s leading capitals, and it showed.

Whatever they thought of his policies and his effectiveness in the post, many who worked with him in his eight years as mayor say Johnson energised City Hall and generally got on well with officials, who found him respectful of their expertise and accessible., particularly in areas he found interesting. Many make a point of saying he was open to discussion.

How times change. That was before Johnson’s bruising stint as foreign secretary, and well before the era of Dominic Cummings as his chief adviser. It’s one thing eating a plate of food alongside the 950 staff in City Hall, quite another dealing with the UK’s 419,000 civil servants. There’s a different playbook now and civil servants are braced for a shake-up. But what form it will take – and how new it will be – remains to be seen.

Initial proposals for reform included ambitious departmental mergers, but No 10 now seems to have rowed back

Initial proposals for civil service reform included ambitious departmental mergers, but No 10 seems, sensibly, to have rowed back. Less radical moves now include a “war on waste” beloved of most incoming governments, and a new cabinet committee to coordinate anti-crime programmes across Whitehall. Such ideas are not that radical or new.

In 2002, for instance, Tony Blair was so alarmed by the rise in street crime that he convened an emergency meeting and rushed in a robbery reduction programme. Street crime did, indeed fall – but at the cost of other targets being met.

And there is a litany of programmes designed to force Whitehall departments to excise wasteful duplication and become more efficient. From 1998’s public service agreements, to “traffic light” departmental assessments in 2006 and the detested “rank and yank” HR scheme of 2013, civil servants have faced many iterations of performance management. It’s 10 years since the Institute for Government (IfG) thinktank urged the then-government that “long-standing efforts to join up the work of departments must move from aspiration to reality”.

The thinktank is still on the government’s case. Its latest report on Whitehall, out this week, says civil service numbers have risen every quarter since the EU referendum, with 25,000 staff working on Brexit – three times the number in 2018.

The influx of younger civil servants – generation Brex – has brought in fresh thinking, more digital skills and a more “millennial” approach to work. A recent rise in tweets from civil servants about more open ways of working is itself a sign of the times. But, as IfG programme director Gavin Freeguard notes, it will still take a lot of hard work to translate ideas in a blogpost into changing how well government works.

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What next for Whitehall? The civil service is notoriously good at shrugging off changes it doesn’t want to make. As yet, old hands across Whitehall don’t seem too exercised by Cummings’ ruminations, despite broadsides such as the recent report that Ofcom has been told to go back to look for an industry figure for its new chief executive, rather than simply approve the appointment of Whitehall’s most senior woman, Dame Melanie Dawes, to the post. But civil servants can’t afford to be complacent. As one put it: “Major restructuring of gov a la Cummings, completing EU trade negotiations and improving public services? Hard enough to get one of those done. All three simultaneously? Something’s gonna get broken.”

Jane Dudman is the Guardian’s public leadership editor