Civil Service must rise from ‘defensive crouch’ over reform – Cabinet Secretary

Simon Case warned against missing the opportunity of embracing the skills brought into the Civil Service through the pandemic.

Civil Service must rise from ‘defensive crouch’ over reform – Cabinet Secretary

The Cabinet Secretary has pledged to overhaul the Civil Service and acknowledged it had assumed a “defensive crouch” position when faced with reform previously.

Simon Case, who since September last year has been the most senior civil service adviser to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was speaking at the University of Newcastle on Wednesday.

In what was his first public speech since taking up the role, Mr Case warned against missing the opportunity of embracing the skills brought into the Civil Service through the pandemic.

But he said: “After victory, we could have applied their specialist skills, their expertise and knowledge, to rebuild the country. Instead, they were encouraged to disperse.”

He said that alongside the strengths of the Civil Service “we also need to acknowledge our weaknesses”, including “cumbersome processes and siloed working” and “confusion at times about who was responsible for what”.

And he said there were also issues with “failing to work consistently well across national and local government, and missing the value of expertise on the ground, weaknesses in how we gather, handle and present data, and our longstanding lack of specialist scientific and technical knowledge”.

Some of these failings echoed criticisms made of the Civil Service by the Prime Minister’s former top aide Dominic Cummings.

Dominic Cummings
Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

But he added that “he also knows this PM will not support the scale of changes needed cos he chose the path of No10 as Media Entertainment Service instead”.

Mr Case insisted much of this criticism came from inside the workforce itself.

He revealed that at the start of the pandemic “officials (were) emailing Excel spreadsheets back and forth late at night, to be turned into Powerpoint slides for ministers the following morning”.

He said: “We didn’t know where cases were or how they were spreading.”

But he said that new systems had been developed, allowing ministers to make tough decisions.

Mr Case said: “My colleagues want to be respected personally and see their contribution valued; so many of the greatest advocates for reform are actually civil servants.

“Some of the loudest voices for change are coming from within. We know what frustrates us; what holds us back. We know what makes it harder for us to do our jobs.

“We know what we have to do. We must make sure that in the next five years we learn the lessons of the pandemic and we seize the opportunities to bank our wins and fix our weaknesses.”

He added: “Let me be clear: we are only in the foothills of these reforms and there is much more to do.”

Warning that trust in civil servants would be eroded without changes, he said the organisation must “rise up from the defensive crouch that we have assumed around reform too often in the past and instead stand tall”.

“While our position is one of great privilege, it is not granted in perpetuity,” he said.

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