UK civil servants spurned leadership training, says Francis Maude

By on 12/01/2021 | Updated on 12/01/2021
A picture of Francis Maude, who drove the UK civil service reform agenda during his time as Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015
Lord Francis Maude/ Photo courtesy Foreign & Commonwealth Office via Flickr

UK civil service leaders resisted the government’s attempts to provide them with intensive leadership training, former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has said, arguing that the civil service shows “an anxiety or insecurity” in the face of external influences. The peer – who oversaw the UK civil service reform agenda between 2010 and 2015 – also suggested that parts of the Treasury and Cabinet Office could merge to oversee aspects of civil service spending.

Speaking in front of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) this morning, Maude said the civil service “continues to have some deep institutional flaws, and what I interpreted as complacency I’ve come since to think is a bit different from that… there is some complacency in there but there’s also defensiveness born of insecurity.” The civil service wants to protect itself from comparison with non-public sector organisations, he added.

“I absolutely have always said that we have some of the very, very best civil servants,” he said. But “this whole idea that the British civil service is a Rolls Royce or that it just purrs along will be a mystery to most people who’ve been ministers.”

Cabinet Office leverage

Last August, Maude was commissioned by the current administration to review the Cabinet Office’s progress on civil service reform. Asked at PACAC about the Cabinet Office’s use of ‘spend controls’ – which link project funding to compliance with central policies in fields such as design and procurement – Maude said that there’s “an argument for bringing together the spending side [of the] Treasury with what the Cabinet Office does on spending controls to create a sort of finance office of management and budget. This is what some budget ministries in other countries do.”

This office, he added, could for example tell departments that they “probably don’t need it or in that quantity” and suggest “a better way of doing it” to officials.

On staff development, he said that during his time in the Cabinet Office senior officials had evaded his attempts to provide leadership training. Before the 2015 election, he tried to send 10 top civil servants on three-month courses run by business schools such as Harvard, Insead and Stanford, “but by the time the election came around, having constantly been told: ‘Yes, it’s happening’, one permanent secretary had been to a one-week course,” he said. “I thought we were doing something extremely positive about investing in the leadership capabilities of the people we were about to be putting in charge of huge, multibillion pound budgets, and yet it just didn’t happen.” 

Maude added: “I think it can only have been this anxiety or insecurity of not wanting leading civil servants to be put in an environment where they are, in some way, in a different kind of peer group. It’s a big wasted opportunity.”

As Cabinet Office minister, Maude oversaw the abolition of the National School of Government: a civil service body providing residential leadership training courses to senior civil servants. In 2018 Sir Bernard Jenkin, then chair of PACAC, said his committee wanted to “reopen the question of whether the UK needs its own National School for Government”. The UK’s was “abolished in 2012 for some understandable reasons, but it was a mistake to lose, rather than to improve, this vital capability,” he added. The current PACAC chair is Tory MP William Wragg.

Holding perm secs to account

Maude also questioned how permanent secretaries are held accountable for spending. “There is very, very little real-time accountability for how permanent secretaries spend money,” he said, claiming that scrutiny basically comes down to being hauled before the Public Accounts Committee. 

“I’m a big supporter of the work the PAC does… but that accountability is always inevitably in arrears,” he said. “It’s stable doors and boltage. Why would you assume it’s okay to only find out a long time afterwards that money has been being wasted? That’s not good accountability.” 

Maude was asked whether he regarded his current role in the Cabinet Office review as dealing with unfinished business. “It will always be unfinished business,” he said. “The moment any organisation thinks it’s done it all is the moment it’s starting to decline.”

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