Former UK Cabinet Office minister to review department

By on 21/08/2020
Francis Maude drove the UK civil service reform agenda during his time as Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015. (Photo courtesy: Foreign & Commonwealth Office via flickr).

Francis Maude, who as Cabinet Office minister drove the UK civil service reform agenda between 2010 and 2015, has been invited back to conduct a review of the Cabinet Office as part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to shake up the UK civil service, the Financial Times (FT) reports.

Maude led the Cabinet Office throughout the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, introducing reforms such as the centralisation of powers in fields such as digital and procurement, and the creation of strong central functions overseeing various civil service professions.

It is understood that the current minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove – who is driving the current reform agenda alongside Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings – asked Maude to lead the review. The FT reports that he is to assess the department’s efficiency and effectiveness; its relations with other Whitehall ministries; and its project delivery work, spending controls, commercial functions, property management and human resources.   

Officials in No10, including Cummings, have privately accused the Cabinet Office of being sluggish in its role in responding to the coronavirus crisis. “The Cabinet Office simply collapsed when faced with the enormity of coronavirus,” one Whitehall official said, as reported by the FT. However, some argue that such comments are part of a ploy to deflect attention from the government’s own poor response to the pandemic.  

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office confirmed that “Lord Maude is conducting a short review on how to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government functions and spending”. The peer will not be paid for his role, and will work alongside Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, and Theodore Agnew, the department’s junior minister.

Number 10 and the Cabinet Office

The news comes after it was revealed that Cummings is to move the Downing Street policy unit to 70 Whitehall, where the Cabinet Office is based, next month.

Senior civil servants told the FT they expected the Cabinet Office’s functions would be more closely integrated with Downing Street as part of Maude’s review. They said the move of Downing Street staff to the Cabinet Office is part of a likely plan to create a new “department for the prime minister” to deliver Brexit, Johnson’s broader policy agenda, and culture change in the civil service.

News of civil service reform began to emerge at the beginning of the year in a series of briefings to the press from Johnson’s inner circle. The reforms weren’t officially addressed by government until Gove made a speech – titled ‘The privilege of the public service’ – at the Ditchley Annual Lecture on 27 June. The government subsequently launched its prospectus for civil service reform on 14 July, which included a commitment to grow the number of civil servants based in the regions.  

At an event the same week, Chisholm said his main priority in delivering reform is to “remove the obstacles” that prevent civil servants from doing their jobs effectively. Such obstacles include burdensome bureaucracy, too much risk aversion, legacy systems, not being able to access the data required to make decisions, and difficulties collaborating with peers in other departments.

“Those are the type of inhibitions that stop people doing what they want to do, which is to better serve citizens; and our responsibility – politicians and senior civil servants collectively – is to remove those burdens,” he said.

In May it was announced that Gove had recruited four longstanding allies as non-executive directors to provide advice, support and scrutiny of the Cabinet Office’s work. One of them, Simone Finn, was a special adviser to Maude during 2010-15, and played a key role in shaping the reform agenda.

Analysis

Maude’s return is likely to prompt mixed feelings among senior civil servants. The peer knows government well, and many of his reforms – such as the creation of the Government Digital Service, the introduction of cross-government supplier management, and the strengthening of the professions and central functions – are widely seen as successful. Maude also tended to work with the civil service to publish reform strategies, rather than leaking his plans via off-the-record briefings to friendly journalists, and did not seek to challenge some of the core principles of the civil service – unlike the more revolutionary Cummings.

However, the peer is returning to produce a review – not to manage reform. And many officials will remember Maude commissioning retail baron Philip Green to produce a review of procurement: though widely seen as shallow and largely designed to catch media attention, the review helped lay the groundwork for Maude’s reforms. Senior civil servants will be hoping that Maude’s own review of the Cabinet Office will be used to develop and embed aspects of his previous reform programme, rather than to provide political and media cover for Cummings’ own, much more radical agenda.

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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