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Why is the civil service failing?

Written by Nick Busvine

Former diplomat Nick Busvine looks at why the civil service and state funded institutions have been found wanting in the face of the challenges posed by Brexit, Covid-19, China and identity politics – and concludes that real reform is urgently required.  

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We have just learnt that Simon Case will replace Sir Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary – and that he will, presumably along with the PM’s special adviser Dominic Cummings, drive long overdue reform of the civil service.  One Telegraph headline welcomed the ‘Rolls Royce of Sir Humphreys who will get things done’.  Let’s hope so.  Brexit, Covid, the flare up of the culture war centred on identity politics and the growing realisation that a reset of our relationship with China is required have all asked searching questions about the fitness of the machinery of government, which should be addressed urgently.

Our collective faith that in times of crisis the British could rely on first class service from the State to get us through has been rudely undermined of late.  Brexit exposed damaging groupthink, lack of impartiality and, most worrying of all, a casual disregard for democracy in the heart of government.  Just when it seemed that Boris Johnson’s triumphant election victory was about to restore some confidence in the system, Covid-19 struck.  Naively perhaps, I was optimistic back in early March that for all the trials and tribulations of Brexit, the UK would respond to the pandemic in a deeply professional, class-leading way.  This, I thought, was the sort of crisis that the relevant departments and agencies would have prepared for.  The health experts were in place; emergency processes and procedures ready to roll out.  The UK, after all, was good in a crisis.  We would set an example for the world to follow.  It didn’t quite turn out that way.  Public Health England (PHE) is to be scrapped and the Permanent Under Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Care has stepped down.

We are now regularly treated to news stories bemoaning ‘the stench of incompetence’ in government.  The exam results algorithm debacle that led to the resignation of the Head of Ofqual is a striking recent example.  While everyone recognises that the government faces an unprecedented set of challenges, there is a growing sense of unease that as the bureaucratic machine has been placed under increasing strain, it has begun to falter.  How has it come to this?  Why has a set of government institutions once regarded as the best of the best fallen into decline?   No doubt, a combination of post-Covid enquiries and expensive reports from consultants will in due course deliver their verdict.  Cummings has clearly already drawn his own conclusions about what he refers to as ‘the blob’, though the precise nature of the ‘hard rain’ reform plan he is developing remains unclear.

Loss of resilience in our state funded institutions is likely to have a lot to do with changes in departmental culture and associated loss of experience and expertise in recent decades and most especially during the Blair years which saw simultaneously active politicisation and dumbing down.  I left the Foreign Office in 2011 after 29 years in harness.  Over that period focus on subject expertise and core delivery was increasingly blurred by what some of us used to refer to as the creeping advance of ‘political correctness’.  Towards the end of my civil service career, there was a growing sense that leaders did not necessarily need to understand the nitty gritty of what their departments actually did on the shop floor.  It was their job to articulate the vision, make sure the culture was right, to ensure that the appropriate processes and procedures were in place to meet departmental objectives – and last, but not least, to be a safe pair of hands.  It was also essential to display an understanding of ‘best practice’ elsewhere in government and the private sector.  Best practice might include, for example, designing and implementing programmes deemed to improve organisational culture.  ‘Diversity’ of one form or another was a popular theme towards the end of my career – and remains so today.  Those destined for top slots would be switched from one department to another to broaden their leadership experience and learn about what worked well elsewhere.

When organisations start to promote people on the basis of non-core skills is it any wonder that they are found wanting when – as leaders – they are required to deliver an agile, sure-footed response in times of crisis?  Poor leadership degrades departmental resilience.  If you don’t really understand the business you are managing, how are you going to lead when something unexpected happens?  There must also be a danger that secondments designed to promote the sharing of ‘best practice’ can easily morph into a transmission mechanism for groupthink designed and shared by ‘people like us’.  In my day, it was career death to stick to your guns on a point of operational principle if it meant that you were not being ‘joined-up’ with other interested departments.

A revelatory moment towards the end of my career came when a fast stream officer in her twenties came to me after completing her first posting specialising in a part of the Middle East, explaining that now she had done something ‘operational’ could she please now be appointed a ‘manager’.  In other words, she could see that there was limited career merit in developing a high level of expertise as, for example, an Arabist specialising in Gulf Affairs.  No, what she needed was to move as swiftly as possible to a role managing other people.  Securing a non-core role, such as designing a diversity programme, was also much sought after – because it suggested that the officer was being groomed for ‘leadership’.  Ambitions of this kind quickly confuse the means with the ends: pushing paper with work. Hence the morale-sapping and seemingly endless reorganisation exercises that bedevil the public service and most especially the NHS where another power-play dynamic can be seen. Nurses switched out of patient care into pointless management posts that add no value to overall service.  One hears too many stories of highly qualified consultants baling out rather than put up with pointless layers of bureaucracy, while others who choose to stay are forced to waste inordinate time fighting to be left alone to get on with treating their patients.

There are many such anecdotes circulating privately and publicly.  One senior UK civil servant recently complained to me that the lack of focus on the tedious business of delivery has meant that in his department a junior official in their mid-twenties and armed only with a theology degree and limited experience in the charity sector was now the policy lead in a crucial area of the Brexit negotiations.  A former civil servant, Neil Wellum, with 30 years of service summed it up very well in a recent letter[1] to the Telegraph, when he observed that the Covid-19 pandemic ‘has exposed some fundamental decision-making weaknesses in the machinery of government in Britain.’  He saw this ‘as a consequence of the Modernising Government programme that started almost 20 years ago. Since then, the balance between trust and experience on one hand and process and scrutiny on the other has been damagingly shifted too far towards the latter…  It is not uncommon for almost the entire upper-management tier of executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies to comprise very able people who have no practical experience of the area they oversee. They are, however, steeped in the language, beliefs and processes that underpin the current administrative system. Their mandate is to run an accountable business; this absorbs huge resources, inflates the number of senior management posts and distracts from doing the job. Something as difficult to deal with as a pandemic requires a much greater reliance on experience at the top.’


I recall an agonised debate in the early noughties about whether my own department should include ‘can do’ as a core value.  In the end, the powers that be decided against.  Some were worried that ‘can do’ implied an unwelcome degree of impetuous, ill-considered enthusiasm.  Happily for us, the military have no qualms about ‘can do’ and have sought to preserve a culture that is not fazed when things go wrong.  The military always assume that no plan will survive first contact with the enemy – and they require officers with the courage and confidence to react swiftly, making good decisions in real time.  The response from the military on Nightingale Hospitals and testing centres testifies to the culture.  Too many senior civil servants, by contrast, are risk averse and slow to act.  Worse, in the case of PHE, it looks as though these faults were exacerbated by a turf-driven unwillingness to share information, consult effectively with the private sector and learn from the experiences of other states which had had to cope with SARS and MERS.

The acceleration of the culture war around identity politics that we have seen since the death of George Floyd in the US has provided a shocking insight into just how far ‘woke’ politics now exert a direct influence on the leadership of our state funded institutions.  In a brilliant recent article[2], Charles Moore makes the point that ‘it is not that racism does not matter, but that definitions and remedies differ dramatically.  Many mandarins have failed to recognise – as they failed with Brexit – that other views legitimately exist.  They appear not to understand that their views, publicly expressed, undermine the neutrality of public service.’  He goes on to conclude: ’These trends suggest that the present Government is right to try to recall the public service to its chief duty, which is to stop striking attitudes and to make policy work.  Hence the coming reorganisation of the Cabinet Office, the search for a new Cabinet Secretary and a new head of the Foreign Office – and the quiet but firm moves against all these woke Sir Humphreys.’

The ‘woke’ phenomenon isn’t just a problem around lack of impartiality.  It is more insidious than that.  The grip that ‘woke-think’ now has on state-funded institutions and large corporates also reflects a power-play.  Ambitious career builders who are not as concerned as they should be with the central business of their organisation, but have a strong interest in self-promotion, have latched onto ‘woke’ issues as a mechanism to acquire and exert power within their host organisations.  This has a cancerous impact on effectiveness and leaves organisations increasingly hollowed out and useless.  It is, after all, so much easier to build power on the basis of shared groupthink than on the rather greater challenge of delivering the best outcome possible for the taxpayer and voter.  One reads with genuine alarm, for example, recent reports[3] that the British Library’s chief librarian, Liz Jolly, is claiming that ‘racism is the creation of white people’ and that a ‘Decolonising Working Group’ is set to pronounce on major cultural change at the institution.  Something is deeply amiss if a person expressing such views can be appointed to a position of such cultural eminence.  Is it any wonder that Brexiteers have steadfastly ignored ‘the experts’ since 2016?





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About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.