Sir Humphrey’s spirit survives in Whitehall

Sir Humphrey's spirit survives in Whitehall
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Fear has been the watchword of Westminster this week, as nervy ministers check to see whether they have survived the cull. Their civil servants meanwhile have had no such troubles, able to wait in their Whitehall offices to comfort, console or congratulate their political masters and listen to yet more interminable farewell speeches from those unceremoniously axed.

One departure that has cheered some mandarins was Michael Gove's switch from the Cabinet Office to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The iconoclastic Aberdonian has blown the winds of change through the corridors of power since his appointment two years ago – hardly surprising in light of his comments that 'the senior civil service survives and prospers, insulated from responsibility for their actions, while the projects they’re supposed to be managing fail and fail again.'

Gove's mission to make the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall accountable culminated in June's much-vaunted 'Declaration of Government Reform' under which 'all senior appointments to public competition by default' will be 'advertised in such a way as to ensure the widest pool of applicants.’ 

Such work was merely the culmination of long-existing principles. Back in 2016 Jeremy Heywood and Matt Hancock (remember him?) published the Civil Service Workforce Plan which promised to 'open up recruitment across the Civil Service by advertising roles externally by default.' Hancock's accompanying speech pledged that 'roles will be advertised externally, by default, first in the Senior Civil Service, then throughout by the end of this Parliament.'

Fine words, strong commitments but two elections on it seems that little has changed. It transpires that one of the Cabinet Office's most senior posts – the grandly titled 'Programme Director for Civil Service Modernisation and Reform' – was filled in April 2020 without any external or internal competition. 

Caleb Deeks was appointed to the post despite it not being advertised, according to a Freedom of Information request sent by Steerpike, which confirms there was no selection panel for the role. In this capacity he is to 'build from scratch and lead [a] new modernisation and reform team' and support the Cabinet Office in 'leading the way on embodying reform,' based on a copy of the personal specification for the post.

The Cabinet Office insisted in its reply to Mr S that 'the post was recruited through a managed move on level transfer, within the Civil Service Recruitment Principles.' Deeks' jump from BEIS to the Cabinet Office came in the same month that his colleague Alex Chisholm made a similar switch, trading the Permanent Secretaryship of BEIS for the Cabinet Office and his new post as Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service. Despite these appointments, the following month their department put out an £800,000 contract for the provision of consultancy services on modernisation and reform, won by McKinsey.

A Cabinet Office spokesman told Steerpike: 'This appointment was made more than a year before Michael Gove's declaration on government reform and was fully in line with our recruitment principles. Moving a current civil servant into the role on a level transfer meant we could fill the position quickly and begin work delivering our ambitious programme of reform immediately.'

Mr S wishes Gove's successor the best of luck in making that programme a reality.

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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