AS a retired civil servant I think I should try to prevent Dominic Cummings, that maverick let loose in Whitehall by Boris Johnson, from wrecking our democracy’s machinery.
He seems to be trying to remake the system in his own shambolic image by inviting weirdos, whizz-kids and assorted wonks to apply for jobs. I doubt whether the British public want to see their Whitehall servants going to work looking, as he does, like a rough sleeper.
I could never be accused of sartorial elegance but I believe certain standards are expected of the bureaucracy. In short, I am conservative enough to think that appearances matter. It follows that my objective is to preserve the good and reform the deficient.
What therefore is Cummings wittering about? He is right in saying that the general run of senior civil servants is not at the cutting edge of science and technology on which he sets much store. They are not expected to be. Their job is to help devise and implement policy and process legislation through Parliament. That is a skill in itself.
They are not “gifted amateurs” – as no doubt in his more generous moments he sees them – but experts in the conduct of a democracy under first Ministerial and then Parliamentary control. I don’t care whether they have double firsts in ancient Latin, Greek or Sanskrit but whether they subject expert – weirdo? – advice to constructive questioning and stop Ministers making fools of themselves.
This is not a doddle. It often involves offering difficult choices – and the guts to present Ministers with unpalatable truths. Cummings should be very careful before he throws the baby out with the bath water.
He is on firmer ground when he complains about senior civil servants being moved around too much so that, like rolling stones, they gather no moss – i.e. a deep knowledge of their particular subject. But this ignores the need to widen the experience of rising civil servants and also give the burned out a new challenge.
He also complains that it seems nobody is ever sacked. It’s not true. Nobody can play fast and loose. But it is true that they are usually redeployed in the system as I once was for no other reason than Willie Whitelaw, moved to the Department of Employment from Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, arrived with his own press officer having, “in a weak moment”, promised to bring him back to London. Within six weeks I ended up in the new Department of Energy.
Cummings must be very careful what he wishes for in ending security of tenure. Does he want to destroy application and loyalty as so many purblind managers have done in the private sector with their insecure employment terms and conditions?
Put simply, life’s a balance. And one man’s impatience with the time it takes to get anything done – has he never heard of the legislative process? – and a portfolio of prejudices against the system has to be balanced against the absolute need for administrative expertise.
Many of my colleagues will be surprised at these views since I had my moments with administrators, especially the secretive ones. But none of this is really new, apart from the thirst for weirdos. The last 50 years are littered with ideas for reforming the system, even if a lot of them were mere expensive tinkering with departments.
It is a more open question whether Parliament should be moved to the North or Midlands. It would be a different matter if, Big Ben bongs and all, the Commons or just the Lords, landed in York. The city would never be the same again.
But so long as Parliament is in Westminster, Ministers need weirdos and administrators at hand so that they can see the whites of their eyes in assessing their arguments.
It may be that devolving more departmental detail – and jobs – to a Northern Powerhouse is feasible. But at what net cost? Has a cost-benefit analysis ever been done?
To summarise: I’m all for weirdos as grit in the oyster. But what matters in the end is whether their ideas work. They must be balanced by constructive and independent-minded civil servants.
The iconoclastic Cummings also raises one further important question. Is he merely an adviser or has he arrogated unto himself, albeit unelected, the Ministerial role of deciding policy, with power to hire and fire?
It is fundamental to our system that officials advise and Ministers decide, as Margaret Thatcher put it.
Boris please clarify – this day.