Former government department chiefs blast ‘homogeneity of thought’ in UK civil service

By on 24/01/2023 | Updated on 24/01/2023
A photo of a street sign of Whitehall, where many government offices are based.
Whitehall. Photo by Steph Gray via Flickr

Two former UK government department bosses have called for civil service reform but say its failures are systemically rooted and unlikely to change under the current educational, cultural and corporate structure of Whitehall.

At an event hosted by the think tank Reform on 19 January, Philip Rycroft, ex-permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, and Jonathan Slater, former perm sec of the Department for Education (DfE), spoke of their experiences in Whitehall and their perception of dysfunction within it.

“The majority of people at the top of the civil service haven’t the faintest idea just how poor it is,” Slater said, adding: “Why would they? They’ve never done anything else.”

He said that although the quality of civil service recruits remained high, their interactions with ministers tended to undermine their drive to make change, leading to a culture of conformity rather than excellence.

“It’s tremendously impressive the calibre of people in the civil service, and it’s equally extraordinary how we waste them. We turn really good people into people who are frustrated.”

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Slater also criticised the way in which civil servants typically advise ministers behind closed doors, rather than in an open forum.

“If they spend most of their time in closed, secret meetings with ministers writing stuff that nobody is going to see for 20 years, what would you expect that system to generate? Would you expect it to generate people who are interested in the long term, in the practical consequence of their action? Or, would it generate people who are really good at working out what they think their minister wants and giving it to them?”

Rycroft commented: “I think that a system where civil servants are held publicly to account for the quality of the advice that they give would be a dramatic, transformational change.”

The civil service speech code

Turning their focus to how the civil service identifies talent, Rycroft and Slater took aim at the lack of cognitive diversity within the workforce.

Speaking about his time at the helm of the DfE, Slater described the way “a very restrictive group of people like talking to each other” involving “particular sorts of jokes with a particular sort of classical allusion”. He said this revealed a culture known as “studied neutrality”, where behavioural and linguistic tactics are used by officials to help them rise up the hierarchy more effectively.

“If you don’t understand the classical allusion, and I almost never did, you sort of wonder if there’s a separate room where people are doing the work,” Slater said.

Read more: ‘An iconoclastic government’: former DEXEU chief Philip Rycroft on threats to the UK and its democracy

Rycroft agreed that the civil service tended to define intelligence by a narrow set of academic interests, and that it should place greater value on more “relevant” degrees in subjects such as law, economics and public administration.

He also said he “would not promote anybody into the senior civil service who has not done at least three years in local government, the health service, industry [or] devolved government somewhere outside of Whitehall”, echoing the sentiment of professor Colin Talbot, as discussed in a Global Government Forum podcast last month.

“The level of understanding that I encountered around the constitution of the country in the civil service was lamentable,” Rycroft added, “which is extraordinary if you think who’s meant to be thinking about this stuff.”

He said that Whitehall tended to produce “a homogenising experience” for civil servants, irrespective of their backgrounds. By focusing on what he called the UK’s external image of “pushing above our weight in the world, of being a big player”, the government’s concerns about its performance had “tilted the wrong way”.  

“Clever people in this room can do the analysis to understand the drivers of that, and why it has given us suboptimal governments. I think it’s a fascinating question,” he said.

Read more: Rishi Sunak halts plan for 91,000 UK civil service job cuts

Jonathan Slater will be speaking at two upcoming Global Government Forum training courses. Register now for unrivalled insight:
Management and Leadership Essentials – Two-Day Training Seminar, London
Implementing Strategy in the Civil Service – Four-Day Training Seminar, Central London

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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