So why is Whitehall seizing up?

Benedict Brogan’s Daily Telegraph blog is always a good reminder of how far Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are mistrusted on the traditional Tory right. A piece yesterday repeats the usual line that Soapy Cameron threw away a commanding lead for his Party and failed to win an election that was his for the taking, and attacks what Brogan sees as a growing chaos in the Coalition Government.

In particular, he argues that Whitehall is seizing up:

Elsewhere, those familiar with the workings of Whitehall will tell you that, behind the scenes, the machinery of government is seizing up. For example, have you tried emailing or writing to a minister recently? Don’t bother. Government correspondence is in chaos. Some departments, such as education, appear to be on the verge of giving up trying to answer letters. Some ministers are refusing to sign correspondence put before them by officials because the content is frankly illiterate. Recently, an exasperated former minister turned up at the reception desk of a major department and demanded to see a minister’s private secretary after five emails went unacknowledged. I am told that Mr Cameron has asked a Tory peer to lead a discreet inquiry into why such an essential arm of government communication has ground to a halt.

Institutionally, the Prime Minister is still suffering the consequences of his speech in Cardiff a few weeks ago, when he described senior civil servants as the “enemies of enterprise”. The speech was a reflection of the frustration felt by Mr Cameron and those around him – in particular, his adviser Steve Hilton – at the slow pace of transformation. Whatever the justification, the aftermath has been disastrous. Senior officials who had been asked to slash budgets, sack staff, reverse previous policies and accept pay cuts have been told that they are the enemy. The relationship between Coalition and Civil Service has gone sour. Whitehall is close to working to rule, at a time when the Government is attempting extensive and ambitious reforms.

His solution is to reshuffle the Special Advisers and for the politicians to get a grip.  But isn’t it obvious that one reason why Whitehall is in trouble is the astonishing cull of civil servants (of whom I am one) that has quietly taken place over the last six months?  Some Departments are losing up to 40% of their staff, without any obvious reduction in the volume of work they are required to undertake, in a service that runs on unpaid overtime.  Those that remain have in many cases gone through a demoralising and effortful process of reapplying for their own jobs.  Those that remain face real pay cuts for two years and are having their pension entitlement – which is of course far less generous than the yellow press claims – attacked. And Cameron’s notorious attack on civil servants in his recent Cardiff speech to the faithful – branding them “enemies of enterprise” has only sharpened the anger and demoralisation.

Cameron and Clegg like to claim that the private sector is an example of how to do things better.  But any CEO who ran his business the way that the Coalition of the Clueless runs Whitehall would be facing disaster.  It seems that loathing of the public sector runs so deep in the Tory psyche that they can’t help abusing the people they need to implement their programme. In this, as in so much else, the Government simply fails to square up to the job.

5 thoughts on “So why is Whitehall seizing up?

  1. DCMS – which is a small department – is facing a 50% cut. In others the total reduction has yet to be finalised, but is likely to be a bare minimum of 25% and some Departments have certainly considered 40% reductions. Some Government departments have of course been closed altogether – like the Central Office of Information or the Government Regional Office network

  2. Found this rather late but to offer a different perspective. My experience is that sadly the quality of people in the civil service at lower levels tends to vary from the excellent to the very poor. I’m a relative new comer but there has been a drop in the average abilities of people in given grades over the last 7 years. For reasons I don’t fully understand a lot of the very poor communicators end up in the specialist correspondence units and churn out rubbish, sometimes semi-literate, replies that then need to be changed by others as part of the “quality” assurance process. Some of this can be put down to lax management in siteu but fundamentally a lot of the people aren’t up to it which is an organisational level.

    Yes real terms pay decreases and fairly arbitrary cuts to staffing levels aren’t fun. However as someone in a big Whitehall department I’m actually rather happy that a process is underway to retain the best staff. And if I end up in the 40% in my area I’ll dust myself down and do a MBA with my payoff before moving onto pastures new. However what is not happening is any drop in my or my teams’ standards – in fact we’ve improved them and pretty much all of us are happy to be busy and working on new policies (even if I don’t personally agree with some of them). No-one at our level cares about Cameroon’s speech (most of my teams in fact have no idea it happened). What we do know is we have engaged motivated Ministers who tend to be a lot more civilised and less bullying than their Labour predecessors.

  3. Pingback: Is the Coalition simply bad at Government? « Notes from a Broken Society

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