The tacticians of Westminster and the strategists of Whitehall have long had a tendency to see the same issue through different lenses.
But rarely have tensions between the two tribes been more publicly on display than in the past year.
Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, has publicly attacked “obstructionism” by senior officials whom he accused of sometimes failing to carry out ministerial instructions. Other ministers complain of a dearth of “pace, capability and focus” among the officials responsible for delivering their agenda, acknowledges one senior mandarin.
Whitehall, for its part, says ministers need to be clearer about priorities for a civil service that is now slimmer than it has been for 70 years.
These tensions are likely to resurface on Wednesday when Mr Maude announces a round of reforms aimed at sharpening civil service accountability. He will announce that permanent secretaries will serve on five-year fixed terms, renewable on the basis of performance. Ministers will also be allowed directly to appoint more officials, ensuring a wider team dedicated to seeing that their will is done.
But the more far-reaching proposals concern a determination – shared between ministers and the civil service leadership – to end the traditional Whitehall emphasis on delivering for a single minister in a single department. This will be done by introducing strong central leadership in areas such as finance and procurement.
Mr Maude has been deeply frustrated by the poor quality of financial management , and a shortage of basic management information in some departments.
Observers point out that it is still possible for a graduate recruit to emerge from two years of training in the elite civil service fast-stream who is lacking core spreadsheet skills. These would come as standard for people trained at McKinsey, the management consultancy which has advised Mr Maude on structural reform. Yet the jobs attract the same calibre of candidates and require the same ability to weigh up policy options.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary, and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, are at one with Mr Maude on the need to improve the quality of advice reaching ministers and to tackle the traditional “siloed” ways of thinking across Whitehall.
Many officials, however, still find it difficult to see beyond the defence of ministerial turf that has characterised debates over budget allocations.
Julian McCrae, deputy director of the Institute for Government, said strengthening financial and other functional leadership would help to counter that approach and drive efficiency savings. But he cautioned against a direct transplant of a corporate model to government: companies had to deal with “small p” politics but in Whitehall officials must contend with the “big P” variety, he pointed out.
Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the public administration select committee, believes that an all-party committee should be established to examine the future of Whitehall. He notes that the pressures on the civil service and the context within which it operates, have changed fundamentally since the last official review, the Fulton commission, in 1968.
If the civil service were to be subject to fundamental change “that is not the business of one transient administration,” Mr Jenkin said. “It is the business for the whole of politics and the whole of government, including parliament.”
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