Whitehall gears up for a Tory victory

The Mirror’s Jason Beattie has been having some off-the-record conversations with civil servants. His piece in the Local Government Chronicle describes how Whitehall is preparing for a Tory victory next year.

Despite the talk of public spending cuts, the general tone of the mandarins’ comments is positive. There seems to be a weariness with the Brown government and a feeling that change is needed.

“There will be no tears shed if we get a more coherent centre of government. Brown has a dysfunctional way of working and for much of the Labour government there has been clear conflict between No 10 and the Treasury,” says one Whitehall insider.

There is a crumb of comfort for the Liberal Democrats, as the possibility of a hung parliament is being considered.

For the first time since 1983 serious attention is being paid to the Liberal Democrats, particularly the views of shadow chancellor Vince Cable and leader Nick Clegg, the two most likely to be found cabinet positions should a coalition arise.

But they also identify the sheer lack of inexperience both of incoming ministers and of civil servants in managing severe budget cuts, a subject I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

One of the problems is that for the past dozen years the culture of the government and its civil service, from the permanent secretary of the Treasury to directors at any district council, has been one of largesse.

Put simply, they are unaccustomed to trimming budgets. “There are not many people in very senior roles who have done recession budgeting,” one mandarin tells me.

This is a particular problem in central government; more so than in local government and the NHS.

After the Thatcher government’s initial spending cuts in the early 80s, the focus shifted first to councils and then to the NHS. Local authorities were subjected to compulsory competitive tendering and internal markets were created in the NHS. The strategy of exposing these services to market forces was, for the most part, continued by the Major and Blair administrations.

As a result, councils and NHS trusts tend to be leaner and more focused than the central government departments and agencies, which were left largely untouched by the disciplines forced on other parts of the public sector.

Because it is so long since it last happened, very few senior civil servants will have any experience of managing a large-scale reduction in spending and staffing levels. Apparently, George Osborne’s proposed solution goes something like this:

Perhaps alert to this inexperience, shadow chancellor George Osborne has pledged to rewrite civil service contracts to include a legally binding ‘fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers’. Those judged to have failed to spend money prudently will be disciplined or dismissed, Mr Osborne promises.

Only someone who has never worked with civil servants could believe that such a measure would make a scrap of difference. Most senior civil servants are very clever people. They are extremely skilled at presenting arguments and advocating their cases. That is why so many ‘vanity projects’ get approved in central government. People decide what they want to do then construct a thorough and convincing business case for it. The ambiguity and lack of clear direction that pervades much of central government means that you can usually bend the meaning of your department’s nebulous vision statement to justify whatever it is you want to do.

The first civil servant who is sacked under Osborne’s new law will go straight to an employment tribunal. He will present the court with a bundle of documents which will ‘prove’ that he was acting in the taxpayers’ interests and a set of meeting minutes showing that everyone agreed with him at the time.

This may sound cynical but it’s going to take more than laws to push through efficiency and spending cuts in the public sector. Ministers will have to get into the detail of what their departments do and simply tell people to stop doing a lot of it. Unfortunately, business leadership and management experience is in short supply among today’s professional MPs.

Encouragingly, there are signs that the Tories realise this.

The Conservatives have also sought advice from the Institute for Government, a nonpartisan organisation which seeks to rectify the lack of training for would-be ministers.

And the grandees have been wheeled out to instruct the infant Conservatives on grown-up government. Michael Heseltine told a recent gathering of the dangers of being bossed around by the Sir Humphreys.

“On day one,” he was reported have said, “make sure you present your new permanent secretary with your agenda, otherwise he will present you with his”.

A ghost from a bygone era when MPs had actually run businesses before going into politics, Heseltine understands that new leaders have about 90 days to make their mark or they are sunk. As soon as they take up their posts, the new Tory ministers will need to get out of their offices and tour their departments, asking awkward questions about everything. If they fail to get a grip in those early days, the likelihood of making any change will diminish, week by week. Inertia will reassert itself and new laws about ‘fiduciary responsibility’ or whatever else, won’t dig the floundering new ministers out of the mess.

The next government will have to do things that make it very unpopular, especially with the some in the civil service. As any CEO will tell you, if you’re going to come in and be Mr Nasty, it’s best to get it over with.

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3 Responses to Whitehall gears up for a Tory victory

  1. “On day one,” he was reported have said, “make sure you present your new permanent secretary with your agenda, otherwise he will present you with his”.

    The first comment by the new minister to the permanent sectretary should be: “lets go through your plan for reducing your departments wage bill by 20% at 4pm.”

    That will set the tone and intentions. If they have’t got one they haven’t been paying attention and should be dismissed.

    That is being Mr Nasty.

  2. Bob Macdonald says:

    I am veteran of getting efficiency in public sector agencies. I did it in the UK and in Asia. Here is the test: if I get more interest on my blog and if I get a telephone call in the next year, then the Tories are serious about change: if I don’t, and they choose to hire somebody because they ‘look’ right, then get ready for a currency default and all hell breaking loose. I wait.

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