Former UK chancellor suggests appointing business leaders to civil service jobs

By on 05/11/2020
Former UK Chancellor George Osborne suggested change to accountabilities and appointments at the first Commission for Smart Government evidence session. Credit: Andy Thornley via Flickr

Figures from business could be brought into top civil service management roles, former UK chancellor George Osborne has told an influential UK civil service reform panel. Osborne was speaking at the first evidence session held by the new Commission for Smart Government, which has just published an initial report arguing that the UK machinery of government is no longer “world-class” and stating that the pandemic has “underscored the imperative for reform.”

The commission involves many of the key figures involved in the country’s emerging civil service reform programme. Its 20 members include former UK permanent secretaries Sir Suma Chakrabarti and Lord Bichard; former government lead non-executive director (NED) Sir Ian Cheshire; former ministers, police and army leaders; two ex-Number 10 Policy Unit chiefs; and figures from the tech and asset management industries. Importantly, Brexit campaigner Baroness Stuart, current lead government NED John Nash, investor Paul Marshall and Cabinet Office NED Simone Finn are also members: all are long-standing allies of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who leads the civil service reform agenda.

The commission’s discussion paper, entitled ‘What’s gone wrong with Whitehall?’, assesses four key areas to determine whether the UK government is operating at a “world-class” level: strategic direction; bringing about change; the use of technology and data; and attracting and effectively deploying great people.

It concludes that “Britain’s reputation for strong government which delivers for citizens is under threat,” with the current system displaying weaknesses against each of the four criteria and “no sign of a strategy for big strategic challenges” such as climate change, social and economic inequality, and the UK’s place in the world after Brexit.

Appoint civil service leaders?

Giving evidence, Osborne said he’d like to see more outside expertise from the private sector brought into senior government jobs to tackle big challenges. “I think you could experiment more with having a wider range of people who wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the House of Commons or the House of Lords,” he said. “Whether you call them ministers, whether you call them something else, I don’t know, but that feels to me something that other countries can do.”

These posts would allow people to switch between the public and private sectors, he added. “You don’t necessarily have to call them ministers, but yes I would give them control over the direction of the civil service. They could become senior civil servants who are only there for sort of five-year, six-year tenures.” Osborne acknowledged that the move – which, it appears, would skirt the existing requirements for appointing both civil servants and ministers – would be controversial, adding that accountability would have to be carefully thought through.

Who’s responsible?

The former chancellor also suggested that reforms could include the centralisation of civil service training, project delivery and the use of data and technology, which he said has fallen “woefully behind”. The government has “more data than any other organisation in the country, but it doesn’t know how to connect it or deploy it,” he said.

Osborne questioned the ministerial responsibility model, under which secretaries of state are accountable for all the actions of their departments – suggesting that civil servants should share accountability. Pointing to the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of British citizens born in the Caribbean were wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights, he said: “I think that there’s a kind of shared accountability there: did the civil service tell the ministers? Are the ministers accountable for the decision?” The scandal cost the job of then home secretary Amber Rudd, though the relevant Home Office policies had been developed during the tenure of her predecessor Theresa May – who held the job for six years and took a hard line on immigration.

Drawing on Osborne’s own experience as Chancellor, he said: “When I introduced a tax on pasties – which I then had to retreat on – at no point in any Treasury document did it tell me before the Budget that I was going to put a tax on pasties. That had not been surfaced in any Budget document.”

Osborne suggested the commission could re-examine the UK’s system of accountabilities. “It’s quite hard to unpick, but I think you’re right in at least applying your commission’s attention to how you might do it. Because that would increase accountability and, by the way, with accountability comes status.”

Still a Rolls Royce?

Asked by commission chair and former Tory minister Nick Herbert whether he thought the UK still has a “world-class” system of public administration, Osborne said it depends on what is meant by world-class. “There are many countries in the world which would love to have some sort of British civil service and our system of public administration,” he said. And while he said there is much to learn from other nations, he was wary about comparisons with countries such as Singapore and Estonia which, he said, “aren’t directly comparable” due to differing population sizes and histories. The Commission for Smart Government is due to run for the next year, producing further research and proposals for reform on a rolling basis.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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