By Lord David Frost.

Government departments are impossible to control, since politicians have little influence over officials.

Imagine a friend comes to you. She has been offered the job of new chief executive of a large, long-standing, organisation – business, charity, school, whatever – and wants your advice.

As you talk, the following becomes clear: she will not be allowed to move, or dismiss, any of the previous senior staff, however badly they are performing. Indeed she won’t be able to hold anyone to account for poor-quality work.

She will be able to bring in a maximum of three advisers to help, but they won’t be allowed to instruct, or have any say in managing, anyone else in the organisation. She will be prohibited from having any say in the organisation’s finances, pay arrangements, structure or HR policies. She will generally have no say over who is hired or promoted.

She can be summoned at just hours’ notice to answer in public on any aspect, however minor, of the organisation’s work. If her staff provide wrong information or try to conceal problems, they will not be blamed, but she will.

Would you advise your friend to be a Cabinet minister? Surely you would say: “You must be mad. You can’t change anything and you can’t run the organisation. How do you expect to achieve anything?”

I am unusual in having been a civil servant, a special (political) adviser and a minister. In all those roles I have seen that the problem is that, as Sir Humphrey puts it to Jim Hacker: “Minister, you are not here to run this department.”

I am unusual in having been a civil servant, a special (political) adviser and a minister. In all those roles I have seen that the problem is that, as Sir Humphrey puts it to Jim Hacker: “Minister, you are not here to run this department.”

Ministers can’t do any of the things that a CEO in the private sector would, except with extreme effort. That’s why it took the Prime Minister getting involved this week just to put a few hundred extra civil servants onto dealing with the asylum system.

Ministers must normally accept the way things are done in their department. That’s a problem because, in my experience, many, perhaps most, Whitehall departments are pretty badly run. It’s not just that they waste time, effort and money. It’s that they do their core job – advising ministers and delivering outcomes – badly. Moreover, they have got worse at it over time, as they have increasingly valued generic skills rather than actual knowledge and expertise, and prioritised running themselves rather than running the country.

This is hardly surprising because, as a generalisation, civil servants don’t get promoted by challenging “the way things are done around here”. They have permanent secretaries who incarnate this, chosen for their ability to keep the show on the road and to win Whitehall battles rather than to change anything.

There is cultural aversion to confrontation of any kind (as large periods of our Brexit “negotiations” showed) and, as any good civil servant will tell you privately, there is almost no willingness to deal with poor performance or to dismiss anyone. There is also extreme risk aversion when it comes to dealing with employment law or the consequences of the Equality Act.

That’s why on anything important – developing a Covid vaccine, for example, or running Brexit talks – the Boris Johnson government correctly decided to bypass the existing bureaucracy and set up dedicated task forces to deliver results instead.

That’s why on anything important – developing a Covid vaccine, for example, or running Brexit talks – the Boris Johnson government correctly decided to bypass the existing bureaucracy and set up dedicated task forces to deliver results instead. But you can’t do that for everything.

Most of the time you have to use the existing mechanisms. In such circumstances, how do you get things done? The only way is to drive the existing system much harder. You can’t get better performance by changing the people, the systems and incentives, because that is all jealously guarded by the bureaucracy, and anyway it takes time that you do not have. So you become more demanding.

You insist on a certain quality of work or on tight timelines. You haul civil servants over the coals in person if they get things wrong. You can insist on meetings being held to time, with actual actions followed up. That way, you might be able to deliver.

Obviously this is unsatisfactory for all sides. One person’s determination to deliver is another’s accusation of “bullying” – and it is noticeable that most such allegations are against determined ministers with a clear agenda who want to get things done, and come from departments such as the Home Office, the Foreign Office, or Ministry of Justice, which are visibly poorly run or ineffective in getting a grip on their policy agenda.

One person’s determination to deliver is another’s accusation of “bullying” – and it is noticeable that most such allegations are against determined ministers with a clear agenda who want to get things done…

Equally, it leaves civil servants, who can see the failings better than anyone else, unhappy and demoralised, as demonstrated by the recent revelation of collapsing civil service confidence in its leadership.

The truth is that our current arrangements are out of date. The Northcote-Trevelyan model for government dates from the Victorian era when departments were a handful of people all drawn from the same small group of society. It needs change. Ministers need to have the ability to run their departments, they need many more political advisers to help get things done, and we must find a way for the upper reaches of the civil service to reflect to a greater extent the politics of the Government.

That way we can end the current malaise and get governments that can actually deliver.


This article first appeared in the Telegraph on 15th December 2022. With thanks for the kind permission from Lord Frost’s team to republish.

Follow Lord Frost on Twitter here.

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