“A hard rain is coming.” Such was the warning, presumably deliberately leaked, from a briefing by Dominic Cummings to Special Advisers. Whitehall was set for a massive shake up.
The news should not have come as a surprise to anyone either listening in or reading about it in the papers afterwards. Those familiar with the Cummings blog will have read detailed critiques of intrinsic civil service flaws, arising from first hand experience and attempts at localised reform. The Vote Leave campaign itself underlined that Brexit provided opportunities that were to be seized, but also that the referendum result was not an end in itself and to reach its full potential it required fresh work.
Anyone who has followed the news over recent years will recall countless stories of Whitehall failure: IT scheme catastrophes; sensitive memory sticks and laptops going missing; illegal immigrants working inside the Home Office itself; procurement overruns; PFI outrages; DfID bankrolling costly gimmicks; expensive politically-correct job hires; and so on. More recently, there has been the disastrous mishandling of Brexit negotiations themselves, albeit with mandarins empowered to go rogue by the incompetence and dithering of senior ministers, in a situation only lately gripped.
Whitehall reform is clearly necessary and long overdue. It was even said to have been the regretted missing piece of the agenda that was to have been undertaken in the Thatcher decade. But what form now should it take? How far should it march? And what objectives does it need to secure?
In Red Cell’s latest paper, we have reviewed the system of law making in the EU, and how much of what was once considered “out of scope” can now be corrected. There, we focused on the obscure and astonishingly little known facets of comitology, the inevitable red tape that accrues for the UK economy, and proposals for a streamlined system that takes back control of the drafting of legislation. Reform here unfortunately remains an area of seemingly limited political consideration.
In a wider context of strategic planning, we can also draw the reader’s attention to our recent paper on risk management, and attempting to apply the wizardry of superforecasting to policy (which, though now trendy at the top, risks misapplying some of the critical lessons involved).
This new paper forms the corollary to that research, covering the people and systems doing the policy drafting.
It begins with a remarkable piece by Tony Lane, who held a senior post covering international trade negotiations. He tackles head on “What therapies will best help Whitehall make Brexit effective”, from its approach to handling international relationships through to training.
Sir Richard Packer was Permanent Secretary at MAFF. His book, The Politics of BSE, is certainly no light read but makes for rare (and alarming) insight on the role of personal relationships within and across ministries, for good but often for bad – particularly when blame-dodging and spin enter the equation. Here in this paper, Sir Richard inserts a salutary warning about breaking all the eggs to achieve the desirable objective.
Two former civil servants from Ireland supply the next contribution, which takes the form of a short dialogue. The commentators draw from their own wealth of experience to provide a mixture of useful prompts and parallels for reshaping our own civil service.
Finally, past Red Cell contributor Adrian Hill adds a number of observations and proposals based on his time in both the civil service but also the military, which have somewhat different ways of doing business and generate prospects for direct comparison.
Brexit demands major changes. Leaving the EU means stripping away levels of distant, obscure, complex and particularly undemocratic administrative hierarchy from British governance – the Brussels knotweed of our times. These changes are on top of the reforms needed to address increasingly familiar failings within Whitehall itself. Some are specific, with certain departments carrying worse reputations than others. Others are generic across the civil service. After a long drought, a hard rain is indeed overdue. But it must not become an all-devouring flash flood that takes away the good as well as the bad. That includes the levees that might protect us all from any maliciously radical – and literally revolutionary – Neo-Corbynite government in the future.
This article is taken from Hard Rain and Galoshes by Red Cell, which you will be able to read in full here shortly.