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"A hard rain is coming": Civil service prepares for change

04 September 2020

Former Cabinet Office Special Adviser Fraser Raleigh writes about the Cabinet Office and what government has in store for the Civil Service

The centre of power in government shifted - quite literally - this week as Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser, moved much of his core political team out of Downing Street and into the Cabinet Office next door.

The move is a physical demonstration of No.10’s seriousness about reshaping the machinery of government. It also highlights the importance of the Cabinet Office, one of the best known departments in Whitehall, but one of the hardest to understand from the outside.

Along with the Treasury and No.10, the Cabinet Office sits at the heart of government. Its fundamental purpose is simple enough: to ‘support the Prime Minister and ensure the effective running of government’. It is the engine room of government, coordinating the policy development process across Whitehall and tracking the delivery of departments’ policies and projects.

In reality its reach is far wider, with a vast array of separate teams stretching from outsourcing to security, from data to the constitution. The lines of accountability for these various teams often criss-cross different parts of the civil service and ministers. Its sheer size and remit has often thrown the far smaller size of the team in No.10 into sharp relief.

Partly because of this, the Cabinet Office has found itself in the firing line with questions about how it should be configured to work more closely with No.10 to support the Prime Minister and his team, and how it has performed in responding to COVID.

Former Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude (now Lord Maude), an early advocate of civil service reform who implemented significant changes between 2010 and 2015, has recently been brought in by the current post-holder, Michael Gove, to review the Cabinet Office’s ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ as it carries out its central coordinating role.

Gove himself set out an expansive vision for civil service reform in a significant speech in July that called for structural change to reward boldness and risk-taking ahead of caution and orthodoxy, in particularly arguing that civil servants should no longer be encouraged to move between departments and portfolios in order to advance, but instead to build up specialist knowledge and stay in place for longer.

In characteristically sharper terms, Cummings recently told special advisers that a “hard rain is coming” to the civil service.

The early rumblings of this storm have already swept away a number of Permanent Secretaries, with high-profile departures at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Education. Where in the past removing a Permanent Secretary was seen as a rare last resort, it has become an increasingly common response to perceived failures of civil service leadership and delivery, or simply personality clashes.

Most significantly of all, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been ushered out to be replaced by Simon Case, a young but highly effective operator whose appointment ahead of a number of more senior Permanent Secretaries was confirmed on the same day Cummings’ team moved to their new base.

Taken together, these steps demonstrate a far more determined and radical approach to shaking up the way that Whitehall - and the Cabinet Office in particular - are geared towards responding to threats and priorities than the civil service has seen in some time.