Peter Hoskin

Despite its reputation, the civil service recognises the need for cuts

Despite its reputation, the civil service recognises the need for cuts
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Hazel Blears' former SpAd, Paul Richards – who wrote that perceptive, Monty Python-referencing analysis of Labour's defeat in Norwich North a couple of weeks ago – has an article in today's Times on the "Sisyphean task" that the Tories may face in reforming the civil service.  It's well worth reading the whole thing, but its central point is enshrined in this passage:

"...the culture of the Civil Service is so risk-averse that it is hard to see it embracing its own transformation. When I arrived at the Department of Health I was told this story: when Tony Blair walked into the Cabinet Room at Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, was keen to prove to his new boss that the central government machine wasn’t all portraits of Walpole and William IV table legs. He pointed to a cupboard, and said: 'And in here we have the latest technology.' Sir Robin opened the cupboard, and Mr Blair found an ordinary telephone."

It's almost pleonastic to say the civil service resists change, just as it is to say that they're self-interested.  But it's certainly something that Cameron & Co should be wary of as they herald their "post-bureaucratic age".  There will be resistance.

One thing that may give the Tories heart, though, is what seems to be the civil service's preparedness for spending cuts.  People like Gus O'Donnell are broaching much more extensive cuts than any of the political parties are daring to.  And civil servants around Whitehall are drawing comparisons with spending cut programmes like those conducted in Canada.  Sure, it doesn't mean the civil service will be understanding if their numbers and wages get slashed; nor that they'll help implement the cuts in an efficient manner when the time comes.  But at least it suggests they're operating on a sensible wavelength.