CIVIL SERVICE UNDER PRESSURE

CIVIL SERVICE UNDER PRESSURE

Ministers frustrated at pace of reform

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Michael Gove was ,on 21 March, according to the Evening Standard, urged to take control of his “shambolic and chaotic” department after MPs complained their letters and questions were going unanswered. Labour went on the attack as ministers admitted that more than 4,500 letters from MPs in nine months had not had a reply within a three-week target. Figures also showed that only 10 per cent of parliamentary questions were answered on time. Shadow education minister Iain Wright complained to Commons Speaker John Bercow saying: “It is not good enough. A school child who had done only 10 per cent of their homework would get detention.” He said the issue, coming after controversies around funding for school buildings and sports partnerships, showed the Department for Education was in chaos. He told the Standard: “Michael Gove is not in charge of his department. He needs to get a grip.” Mr Bercow called for the matter to be addressed. A spokeswoman for the department put the delays down to an avalanche of letters and a computer glitch. “The department has received a much higher volume of correspondence than usual in the last few months and we apologise for not reaching our usual three-week target for responses.  The problems unfortunately extend to other Government Departments. A letter sent to a Cabinet Office Minister in December last year by five senior Executives of Education support companies, making recommendations concerning the education market has yet to receive a reply-with Departmental  guidelines recommending a response to correspondence within 20 working  days. These delays are worrying not least because such feedback from practitioners is designed to assist the reform process and highlight areas that require the Governments attention, and to help Ministers avoid pitfalls.

There is a broader concern too about how the pace of change and shortage of funding is impacting on the reform agenda. David Cameron has suggested much to the annoyance  of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, that the civil service is the enemy of enterprise. O Donnell believes such frustrations should never surface in public. But it is a clear reflection of Ministers frustration at apparent obstruction and bureaucratic inertia and reminds one of Tony Blairs admission that he bore the scars on his back following confrontations with civil servants over his reform programme.  James Forsyth of the Spectator says that ‘ it is difficult to understate the depth of ministerial frustration. One secretary of state is so fed up with his department’s refusal to answer his questions that he has asked a friend of his, an MP, to put in a Freedom of Information request. In all departments, the civil service is refusing, point blank, to discuss details about what the Labour government did — so Tory and Lib Dem ministers cannot even find out which mistakes they should avoid. The most common complaint, according to Forsyth,  from ministers is that they feel outnumbered: one reformer in a department set against change.’ Ministers also fear the legal consequences of their actions. Whether its the Equalities Act, the Human Rights Act or other laws  it seems, at times, that all reforms can be challenged in the courts, so lawyers are on constant call and civil servants lean towards extreme caution.  Having promised to cut down on special advisers Cameron now feels that they are needed in abundance to force through changes, as the Government fears that Reforms are simply taking too long to enact and they may simply run out of time, with too little to show for their efforts.

At DFE Gove has been somewhat frustrated. It took him a while to realise that managing a Department at the cutting edge of reform is a big ask, made even bigger if some senior civil servants are not that keen on what you are trying to  achieve.   Dominic Cummings  has   been brought in as a special adviser to   help him drive through the reforms. The blue riband reform is the Academies scheme simply because it is one initiative in which progress can actually be measured (although some critics suggest that  some Academy schools relative progress  owes more to  spin than substance). Rumours that Michael Barber was to replace David Bell as Permanent Secretary at DfE were quickly scotched although they are symptomatic of a deep frustration among some Tory insiders at the Departments perceived underperformance and lack of reforming zeal.

In the meantime the Free schools initiative is making gradual progress with some forty   credible bids identified,  and  a few will be  ready by September.  But  the scheme is constrained by a lack of funding and some other technical difficulties including a failure to fully engage the private sector. Everyone in the meantime is awaiting the results of the James review on capital funding.

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