John Keiger

Will Boris’s Whitehall overhaul work?

Will Boris's Whitehall overhaul work?
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Boris Johnson's big election win means the Tories have taken back control of Parliament. The PM's majority ensures that he can deliver on Brexit and also push through his party's agenda for government. One of the more eye-catching policies planned is a shake-up of Whitehall and the British civil service. Without a radical change, policy implementation will flounder. But will Boris's Whitehall overhaul work?

Dominic Cummings, who appears to be the driving force behind these plans, is certainly no fan of Whitehall. In a 2014 blog, he quoted from a TS Eliot poem about the Treaty of Versailles to sum up what he saw as the dismal failure of the civil service to turn policy ideas into action.

'Are you fed up with the Hollow Men in charge of everything and do you want to change things more than the three party leaders do? I am and I do,' he wrote. 

According to Cummings, the people who work in Whitehall, their education, training, promotion and their inability to cope with the complexity of the modern state and society, or even to understand the tools needed to do that, makes for a recipe for inaction. 

It isn't only in Britain where a radical change to the machinery of government appears to be on the agenda. On the day the new British Parliament was sworn in, across the Channel Le Monde leaked findings of the Tiriez report showing plans for similar reforms in Paris.

Commissioned by president Macron six months earlier in the aftermath of the gilets jaunes crisis, the report proposed sweeping changes to France’s higher civil service. When published in January, it will suggest reforms to recruitment, education, training and promotion. The most notable proposal is likely to be a remodelling and watering down of France’s elite public servant training school, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

That the two best civil services in the western world are the simultaneous targets of fundamental reform points to a flaw in modern democracies. Civil services are the drive chains of the democratic machine, connecting political programmes and the people. When those services fail, frustration is felt viscerally at both ends of the democratic machine.

So despite major differences between the systems in France and Britain, both Cummings and Macron appear to have reached the same conclusion: the civil service is insufficiently reactive and operational in implementing policy.

Paradoxically, Macron appears to want a more British style civil service recruited from a broader diverse pool of graduates; Cummings a more elitist French style service with wider interdisciplinary skills encompassing the sciences.

Both Macron and Cummings are great believers in the ‘disruptive’ mentality of start-ups as opposed to slothful bureaucratic evolution. That requires a different kind of recruit, education, training and career advancement. But will they succeed?

Their analysis has been sharpened by recent crises: the Brexit stalemate and gilets jaunes protests. The former revealed a metropolitan civil service characterised, not by overt bias, but by unspoken assumptions and group think. In the eyes of critics, this then led to the systematic undermining of a policy (Brexit) that did not fit its world view.

Over in France, a distant Parisian elite seemed unable and unwilling to grasp the day-to-day trifling problems of provincial ‘left-behinds’. 

Ironically, the very object of these planned reforms, the civil service, teaches us that execution is where the trouble is likely to lie. Cummings himself points out that ‘Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989)’. That begs the question as to whether Brexit and the gilets jaunes revolt qualify as sufficient opportunity for change.

If they do, Cummings and Macron – both products of their countries elite institutions, Oxford history and ENA respectively – know the remarkable inertia of those bureaucracies. Neither can ignore that a reform programme, however brilliantly conceived, still has to be executed by the civil service.

Even the self-proclaimed ‘dementedly focused’ Cummings recognises that remodelling the government machine is an Odyssean task; his 2014 blog is explicit about how the system reacts to protect itself. The supposed words of a Department for Education official to Michael Gove's team, which Cummings quotes in his article, are a case in point: ‘You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and its my job to expel you from the organism.’

Expect French and British Sir Humphreys to be less explicit, but equally defensive. Cummings’ blog does not carry all verses of Eliot’s poem. But he and Macron would do well to heed the poem’s famous final stanza: 

‘This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.’

While Cummings and Macron both have big plans to reform the corridors of power in London and Paris, they have an uphill task ahead of them. And they are likely to make few friends along the way.

Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a professor of French history and former Research Director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge

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