David Willetts on Cabinet Office – Institute for Government Interview

I think we can assume that David Willetts, the Conservative former universities minister, is not going to be on Francis Maude’s Christmas Card list after the comments he made in an interview with the Institute for Government recently. The IfG has carried out a fascinating series of detailed interviews with Ministers from the last coalition government, which give a detailed insight into what it is like to be in those demanding roles.

Of most interest to us, he is scathing in his assessment of the Cabinet Office, which he calls “the worst department of government by a long margin.”

“It’s not accountable. It imposes absurd things on you. It then runs away when things don’t work out and always blames you. It is a terrible department. Over-manned, too many ministers, and a lot of time was spent essentially trying to stop the Cabinet Office messing up things we were doing.”

He didn’t rate the centralising agenda very highly either, having been bruised by some experience with Government Digital Service.

“There is a kind of an unspoken agenda, ‘We’ve got to enhance the role of the centre’. But they haven’t really worked out how to do that […] I mean an IT system that didn’t work in BIS which we had in about year three or four, which had been imposed because of this Cabinet Office hatred of big companies ... We had an absurd small company that couldn’t deliver an IT system and then it didn’t work. And I stupidly said, ‘It shows how wrong Cabinet Office is’. And the Cabinet Office is like, ‘No, that’s your decision, you’re responsible, and you have to take the blame. This is a mishandled contract’.”

His very final comment was interesting and spot on in our opinion.

The Civil Service is not a conspiracy to stop ministers doing things. That’s the crucial angle. And by and large they will often warn you that something won’t work. They’re not always right, but it is very important… that is not [seen as] simply a bunch of boring do-nothings putting up objections for everything. It is worth trying to understand why they don’t think it will work to see whether it’s a valid reason and if there is a genuine concern that has to be tackled”.

This is the dilemma for civil servants, including senior procurement and commercial executives. Point out that the Minister’s idea is stupid, impossible or illegal (outside the procurement regulations perhaps) and the “bad Minister” will call you obstructive, unhelpful, and lacking initiative. But if you don’t object, and things go wrong, then of course it is your fault because you did not warn your Minister!

It is a good interview with Willetts, and I think he will go up in most people’s estimation, certainly amongst civil servants, based on his comments. The Cabinet Office remarks also show the antipathy towards Francis Maude and his agenda that was felt by many Ministers in the last government. Matt Hancock is taking a much less confrontational line now as Cabinet Office Minister; he wants to go further in his career, whereas Maude was at the end of his, hence the very different approach!

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Voices (5)

  1. Bill Atthetill:

    Christmas just came early

    1. Secret Squirrel:

      It’s not as good as David Willetts is saying! It’s worse.

      GDS and CCS in combination are highly dangerous, IMO. The GDS people are generally ideologues and CCS are generally their lapdogs. But ask either of them to step up to something hard and it falls very short.

      The RPA tale in DEFRA shows how these new ideas (and their execution) are badly lacking in substance.

      And I’m terrified of what will happen to our nation’s ability to collect tax once ASPIRE has been through the GDS mangle.

      1. Bill Atthetill:

        Digital can be a real disruptor. Just look at the way the digitisation of tax disks has saved taxpayers £85m+ by individuals not bothering to renew their tax disk (i.e. by not paying at all). It’s wonderful news.

        As we all know, there’s a war taking place between CCS and GDS to run the Digital Marketplace. GDS know what they’re doing (in my humble view but they could be smarter) whereas CCS run the procurement for the underlying framework/s, and it would horrify me if they ran the whole thing. They are clueless…

        1. Secret Squirrel:


          Now now. It’s only £38m lost in revenue according to the article I read. That said they’ve lost £45m from people not bothering but saved £7m in processing.

          1. Bill Atthetill:

            They were already losing £35m, and now it’s a further £45m, leading to a potential total of £80m. (Take the point about £7m admin but some this will be eroded through increasing the size of team chasing those who don’t bother paying.)



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