Boris Johnson plans major civil service shake-up following UK election win

By on 16/12/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
There have been a series of anonymous briefings to the press against Sir Mark Sedwill. (Image courtesy: UK Civil Service/flickr).

Fresh from winning Thursday’s general election – securing the best result for the Conservative Party in more than 30 years – UK prime minister Boris Johnson is planning radical changes to the civil service. The plans are being driven by Johnson’s controversial special advisor Dominic Cummings, who has long been a fierce critic of Whitehall.

The changes under consideration, The Sunday Telegraph reported, include replacing permanent secretaries with political appointees; making it easier to hire and fire civil servants; and shutting or merging several departments. The newspaper reported that the government is also considering creating a strong “office of the prime minister” to exert greater control over Whitehall, and encouraging the appointment of external experts into the civil service.

Cummings, a political strategist and mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, is a highly controversial figure who has long made clear his hostile views of the UK’s civil service, which he has criticised as wasteful, obstructive and poor at delivering ministers’ agendas. He is sceptical about the principle of a permanent civil service – giving a Times interview in 2014 attacking the idea – and after he became special adviser to then-education secretary Michael Gove in 2011, the department made a number of apparently political hires into civil service positions. Cummings wrote in June 2017 that the “reason why Gove’s team got much more done than ANY insider thought was possible – including [then PM] Cameron and the Perm Sec – was because we bent or broke the rules and focused very hard on a) replacing rubbish officials and bringing in people from outside and b) project management.”

Culture and recruitment

One of those hired into the Department for Education during that period – Gabriel Milland, who left right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange to become head of news in September 2011 – told the Today programme on Monday morning that the reforms will be “much deeper” that officials are expecting.

“Some of the noise from very senior civil servants is that they seem to be expecting what is known in Whitehall jargon as ‘MOG’ – machinery of government – changes,” he said. “I think it’s going to go much deeper than that. I think it will be structural, and I think there will be… a cultural shift. It will be more than changing the nameplates on departments and moving officials from one end of Whitehall to another… it will be about shaking up the way people think, but also shaking up the way people work and how they work and the kind of work that they do.”

Milland also reiterated Cummings’ view that there is a “huge deficit in expertise” in the civil service. “If you look at a country like France, for example, where they have schools that train officials, the officials that come out of those schools are much more highly skilled at things like project management, technology, law and accountancy than the British civil service produces,” Milland said. “Cummings has an aspiration to change the type of people who work in Whitehall.”

France’s main such institution is the École Nationale d’Administration, which is set for radical reform: earlier this year, president Macron announced a review of its role over concerns that the process for developing senior officials fosters an insular, elitist leadership cadre.

MOG changes

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times reported, the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) will be shut down after the UK leaves the European Union early in the new year. Negotiations on a future UK-EU relationship are expected to be co-ordinated from the Cabinet Office, perhaps falling within the remit of Michael Gove – who, if he stays in his current role as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, may also play a role in the civil service reform agenda.

The proposals also include merging the departments for business and international trade; incorporating the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office; and creating a new department for borders and immigration outside the Home Office.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, voiced caution over the reforms. “Transformative government is delivered through policy, not reorganisation,” he said. “Whilst the temptation from every new government is to demonstrate their reforming zeal by reorganising Whitehall, this can often be a distraction and waste both time and money as civil servants merge or split departments, rather than simply getting on with the job in hand.

“Civil servants are there to deliver the new government’s policy objectives and the prime minister needs to ensure that they are delivering key public services, rather than being distracted by the bureaucracy of major organisational change.”

Words of caution

Raoul Ruparel, former Europe adviser to Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said the government’s attention should be focused on the next phase of negotiations with the EU, which will determine Britain’s trade and security relationship with the continent for decades to come.

“The government and the civil service have a lot of work to do if they are to prepare to leave with a deal,” he said. “As it stands, the UK does not appear ‘match fit’ for the next phase of negotiations.”

Meanwhile, former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell warned against the abolition of his old department. “[The department] is the most effective and respected engine of development anywhere in the world, and a huge soft power asset for Britain,” he said. “Any machinery of government changes in Whitehall should obviously respect Britain’s international development in the poorest and most unstable parts of the world. Tackling insecurity and building prosperity directly affects our wellbeing in the UK. British leadership in this area is a core part of ‘Global Britain’.” 

Chief secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak has been evasive about Cummings’ plans. According to the Irish Times, Sunak is seen as having potential to head the new merged business and international trade department, which might also take responsibility for broadband and artificial intelligence from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. When asked about the planned overhaul on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he said only that the government wants to “innovate” to deliver for the public, telling Marr that “people watching will not be interested in the process of government.”

Although the government appears to be moving quickly, further details are unlikely to be made public until the New Year. In the meantime, a limited government reshuffle is expected to be announced shortly, with more substantive ministerial changes likely in February.  

Cabinet secretary tipped to stay

Meanwhile, the Irish Times reported that cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill – who had been tipped to become Britain’s US ambassador – will stay on in his current role to oversee the reforms, quoting a senior government figure as saying that he “looks full of energy and is relishing the very big job ahead”. 

Speaking on Today, civil service journalist and commentator Sue Cameron described Cummings and Sedwill as being “as thick as thieves,” and said she believes they will work on the reforms “in collaboration”.  And Milland emphasised that Cummings “has a huge amount of respect for civil servants” and is capable of forming “very strong relationships” with officials.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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