UK civil service reforms will continue, says new cabinet office minister – but more nicely

By on 28/05/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Matthew Hancock was appointed minister for the Cabinet Office on 11 May 2015.

Since being appointed minister for the Cabinet Office after the Conservatives won a surprise majority in the May 7 UK general election, Matthew Hancock set out his vision for the UK civil service at the Institute for Government (IfG) think-tank earlier this week. Matt Ross reports

There is little new under the sun, as new Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock reminded an audience at the IfG. When the Civil Service Commission was founded, 160 years ago today, “the Foreign Office was worried about Russian ambitions in the East,” he recalled. “A technological revolution was changing the way the world worked. And at the Treasury, there was huge excitement about the economic powerhouse in the North of England.”

As Hancock pointed out, the Civil Service Commission was itself the outcome of another challenge that has troubled government many times over the years: that of reforming the civil service. And – though he didn’t put it quite like this – the MP for West Suffolk is himself the latest minister in the very long line charged with that Sisyphean labour.

In that task, he has the rare advantage that his predecessor made some real progress. And so the main message was: steady as she goes. The driving force behind reforms remains unchanged, Hancock pointed out, with the government ambitious to cut costs by £15-20bn by the end of the Parliament – these savings will, he assured the chair Peter Riddell, be checked by the National Audit Office. And the main tools of change also survive: he highlighted the ‘functional leadership’ agenda led by civil service chief executive John Manzoni, and namechecked the Cabinet Office’s various reform agendas.

Among these, the Government Digital Service got top billing, with praise for the changes on property, major projects, communications, and the fraud, error and debt agenda. On commercial skills and procurement, though, he noted that “there’s more to do”; and whilst he pointed out that there is now a cross-Whitehall HR function, he made clear that its work has barely begun. “Now I intend to ensure that we deliver a significant improvement in civil service HR,” he commented.

There was, however, a clear change in tone from that of his predecessor Francis Maude, whose centrally-driven control regimes and fractious outriders ended up alienating many civil servants. There was a sense that peace has broken out, on three different fronts.

First, the Cabinet Office’s interactions with departments must, said Hancock, provide a “positive challenge,” providing pressure for change “but also support.”

“The Cabinet Office has to look at what it can offer and how it can add value – but it can’t be done just with a big stick,” he added. “It’s got to be done by having an offer that is attractive to departments, to help them to manage within their budgets.” The new minister clearly wants to charm departments as well as to chivvy them.

Secondly, he signalled an end to the battles between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury that broke out during Maude’s tenure. Along with Number 10, he said, the centre is now “at its most united and cohesive in a generation”, with “Treasury and the Cabinet Office working ever more closely together”. Small wonder, given that Hancock used to be the chancellor’s chief of staff. By appointing him, the prime minister has closed off the potential for clashes at the heart of government, whilst retaining control of the reform agenda within his own bailiwick.

Finally, there was ostentatious politeness on both sides when Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA Union, noted that “many civil servants will welcome both the tone and the substance of what you’ve said today”, before asking about the possibility of ‘machinery of government’ changes and the pay disparities between the public and private sectors.” Thanking Penman, Hancock pointed out that “I’m not someone who believes that the solution to the civil service’s challenges is solely to bring in more people from the private sector, or that ‘private sector good, public sector bad’. On the contrary, running the government is one of the most difficult jobs in the country.” What’s required, he argued, is a “porous” border between the civil service and the outside world, across which people move in both directions.

The minister did not offer a solution to the recruitment and retention problem caused by pay disparities; nor did he answer Penman’s question about departmental reorganisations, and neither touched on the painful subject of the proposed cap for redundancy payments. But Hancock did give a hint of the way forward in answer to a question about performance-related pay from the Independent newspaper’s Oliver Wright.

Performance-related pay is often characterised as a way to pay poor performers less, but Hancock presented it as a way to pay the good ones more: “The system needs to support people to get the best out of them and make sure the best people are retained, and in some cases there’s a challenge there from offers from outside,” he said. “That needs to be very carefully managed within tight budgets, but there’s no doubt that a link between performance and pay is a reasonable link in managing any large organisation.” His comment wasn’t exactly a pledge of riches – but it did contrast with Maude’s tone on performance management, which tended to focus on its ability to weed out the workshy.

One Maude theme Hancock did retain is the idea that civil servants should be encouraged to take risks in the pursuit of innovation. “I want to see a civil service where people feel in control of their destiny, where they have permission to innovate and are trusted and can trust others,” he said, prompting former health secretary Virginia Bottomley to ask for reassurance that his colleagues will “allow their civil servants to speak as it is, to say the good and the bad, and [have] the freedom to fail.”

Hancock offered direct reassurance only on the last of those points. And in his speech, he had emphasised civil servants’ duty to serve the government of the day: they have a duty of “impartiality, not independence,” he noted. “The legitimacy of the powers of government stem not from merit, nor from honesty, nor from integrity, wonderful as these are, but they come from democracy.”

While answering questions from the audience, however, the minister made clear that he wasn’t signalling further moves to tighten civil service accountability to ministers. “The task is to roll out those positive innovations that Francis Maude pushed through, and to make sure that the link between ministers and civil servants operates in the way it is meant to.” That link, he added, “is respected by almost all the civil servants I come across. And it works well, as long as you as a minister do your job – to provide leadership and direction – then take advice on how to get there, and allow the machine to execute.”

A traditional line, then, on the relationship between ministers and officials; and no new push to rebalance that crucial relationship. Francis Maude’s reforms will continue, it seems, but – unusually for a new minister – Matthew Hancock has not felt the need to signal his arrival by finding a new set of dragons to slay.


Matt Ross is the communications director at the Institute for Government, which hosted Matthew Hancock’s speech.

Click here for the full transcript of Hancock’s speech.

Click here for Hancock’s CV highlights.

See below the video of Hancock’s speech and the Q&A session afterwards.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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