UK cabinet secretary defends civil service against ‘wholly inaccurate’ attack by former minister

By on 19/09/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Ex-minister Lord Maude of Horsham has criticised the governments implementation of Brexit (Image courtesy: Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

The head of the UK’s civil service has defended its progress on implementing key reforms following a critical speech by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

Sir Jeremy Heywood spoke out after Lord Maude accused the service of “institutional complacency” and a “bias to inertia” in a speech given last week as part of a lecture series hosted by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow.

Maude, who introduced a civil service reform programme as minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general from 2010 to 2015 under David Cameron’s premiership, said officials had lied to him and ignored ministerial decisions. The “mandarinate” is now fighting back against the reforms and “old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging”, Lord Maude said.

Robust response

The accusations were dismissed as “wholly inaccurate” by Sir Jeremy, who has been cabinet secretary since 2012 and head of the civil service since 2014.

“At a time when the civil service is working flat out to support the government in delivering a successful Brexit, its many manifesto commitments and its portfolio of major projects – with the smallest headcount since the Second World War – it is a pity that Lord Maude has chosen to attack the organisation and its dedicated staff with a wholly inaccurate portrayal of what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most effective and efficient civil services,” Civil Service World reported him as saying.

“Since [Maude] left the Cabinet Office in 2015, the civil service reform programme that he helped to create has been implemented with vigour, sharply improving our commercial, financial and digital capacity.”

John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, also weighed in. “Far from stopping reform, we are deepening and accelerating. The civil service is undertaking a huge programme of fundamental transformation to deliver sustainable change and equip the civil service for the post-Brexit world,” he said.

Complaints and criticisms

In the speech, Lord Maude said: “Honesty and integrity are two of the civil service’s statutory values. Yet it is surprising how often ministers are told things that are simply not true. On two specific occasions, I was told that the cost of implementing a change, in each case to civil servants’ own employment terms and conditions, was literally 100 times what turned out to be the actual cost. Quite often, I would be told that the law precluded a particular course. More often than not, it was not to be the case.”

He continued: “And when, after receiving candid and well-evidenced advice, ministers make a decision, it is the duty of officials to execute it. Again, surprisingly often, this simply doesn’t happen. On one occasion, I asked a cross-departmental group of officials why a cabinet committee’s very clear decision had simply been ignored. The answer? ‘We didn’t think it was a very strong mandate’. What? What on earth do you need? A Papal Bull?”

Lord Maude said four key measures were required to strengthen the UK civil service: a change in culture; a greater stress on innovation and on encouraging employees who are not progressing to leave the service; “parity of esteem” between administrators and operational, commercial, financial and technical staff; and a continuing focus on “strong functional leadership at the centre of government”.

Successes and failures

Lord Maude, who stepped down as minister for trade in February 2016 and now serves as an adviser and board member to various businesses, presided over reforms that cut the civil service by more than 20 per cent, sold off property and axed £19bn from running costs.

Other major initiatives included launching the Government Digital Service, reforming procurement, and setting up the Major Projects Authority to provide independent scrutiny of government plans.

Whilst many civil servants acknowledge that Maude’s robust and long-term approach to reform provided the momentum and political commitment essential to overcoming institutional inertia, it also led to conflicts and damaged relationships with officials – and eventually the government shifted towards a more collaborative approach to delivering reforms. Reform programmes continue across the civil service, and Heywood’s robust response – which will have been approved by key ministers – suggests that the current prime minister and Cabinet Office minister do not accept Maude’s analysis.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.


  1. Chris says:

    The former minister instituted many damaging changes with zero evidence or willful ignorance dire outcomes elsewhere.
    The worse one for general morale and goodwill was instituting the thoroughly discredited in the private sector relative ranking annual assessment.
    Changes to the fast stream were made based on relatives experience of development schemes in the private sector, again with no evidence or piloting. He seems to make the common mistake of believing random changes based on what someone thinks is a good idea is reform compared to evidenced, piloted change programmes.
    The result has contributed to the de-skilling or civil servants, an acceleration of ‘grade creep’ and many good staff leaving for elsewhere.

  2. Jag Patel says:

    Elsewhere, in an interview with the Institute of Government, Sir Oliver Letwin who succeeded Francis Maude as Cabinet Office minister following the 2015 election goes even further in his criticism of the functioning of the Civil Service. He says that “…. there was a huge amount of terrible guff, at huge, colossal, humungous length coming from some departments” and that the rot may have started in the ’80s.

    He goes on to say “…. there was an awful lot of management speak” and that “…. In the Civil Service it was a sort of parody of that and I had the sense that people were rising through the ranks because of their ability to organise seminars and hold leadership courses and speak this gobbledygook and that really worried me.”

    Here is another example that falls in the category of “management guff”.

    Problems should be called exactly what they are, problems – not challenges – the management-speak word used to downplay the seriousness of problems, which have afflicted every facet of life in the Public and Private Sector. There are some people who are called problem-solvers, but no one is referred to as a challenge-solver!

    Worse still, not only has this disease spread across the whole of the Public Sector, but it has also infected the Private Sector via the ‘revolving door’.

    Additionally, those scouting for talent in the Civil Service should be on the lookout for people who can talk a “big game” but can’t do it – specifically for the purpose of excluding them from consideration!

    In today’s world, there is a desperate need for problem-solvers, innovators and doers – in just about every field of human endeavour, although they are not advertised as such.

    Mr. Letwin’s full interview with the Institute of Government can be accessed via this link:
    @JagPatel3 on twitter

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