Michael Gove and The Civil Servants’ Dilemma

Last week, ex Cabinet Minister Michael Gove wrote a Times newspaper column in which he was very critical of the UK civil service. He accused civil servants of being responsible for the Type 45 Destroyers lack of seaworthiness and many other public sector follies including the NHS IT programme; “I’d like to see the names of civil servants responsible for these programmes published, their explanations for failure (or success) recorded and those who’ve failed be removed while those who can demonstrate clear, measurable, success get promoted”.

Gove is my local member of parliament and I have met him a couple of times, and he is also a very intelligent man. It is therefore disappointing that he has put forward such an illogical argument as the heart of his attack.

I was a senior civil servant for three years and then worked for almost ten years as a consultant, spending around 80% of my time in the public sector, much of that in central government. That included for example a year or so working on the ID Card programme, some of that as acting Commercial Director at the Identity and Passport Service.

What is clear to me is that many of the issues and problems Gove identifies should be laid directly at the door of politicians, not civil servants. It was not a civil servant who came up with the idea of the NHS IT programme, or indeed ID Cards, or who changed the strategy behind that programme time and time again. A fundamental problem was the regular turnover of Ministers, each of whom had a different idea of what the cards were for.

But the bigger issue was that the desired results at the time were probably unachievable from a technology point of view. However, that highlights the fundamental flaw in Gove’s argument. What exactly are senior civil servants supposed to do when politicians – our elected representatives – tell them to take a certain course of action that the civil servant believes is likely to be impossible, or a waste of money, or take far longer than expected?

If the civil servant pushes back and says something is impossible, then they are labelled as “enemies of enterprise”, as ex-Prime Minister David Cameron once disgracefully called public procurement staff. Gove himself has been voluble in his criticisms of civil servants who did not support his radical ideas in his departments. And, to be fair, sometimes things that are very difficult do prove to be achievable, so the tendency is for civil servants to point out the issues but eventually go along with the Minister’s wishes, both for self-protection and also because perhaps it will work in the end. It often does not of course.

This is the heart of the problem. Take any Minister and they will say:

  1. The civil servants who fight my ideas are just stuck in their ways, lazy and useless.
  2. But I want civil servants in other departments to be independent and point out to their useless Ministers when ideas are impractical and wasteful.

So civil servants cannot win. Now that’s not to say Gove’s article is complete nonsense. In amongst that paradoxical argument, he makes some good points; as he says, permanent secretaries never seem to get fired, no matter what disasters they oversee. And it does feel too much like the top levels of the civil service form a club of like-minded people who stick together and cover each other’s backs. But getting the balance between challenge and the obligation to deliver a Minister’s policies is tricky for civil servants at the best of times.

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Voices (2)

  1. bitter and twisted:

    Surely a basic specification error in a ship is the Navy’s fault.
    Sack an admiral or two.

    1. Paul Wright:

      We used to take more drastic action. Pour encourager les autres.

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