Snap Analysis 14 November, 2023

Reform analysis: The Maude Review

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy
Patrick King
Senior Researcher
Sean Eke
Researcher

While the rest of the ‘bubble’ spent yesterday tracking the reshuffle, a very specific species of policy nerd was reading Lord Francis Maude’s long-awaited Review of Governance and Accountability in the Civil Service. All 87 pages of it (140 including the annexes). Reform was privy to an early understanding of Maude’s findings when he joined us for a pair of events in October — it’s well worth catching these if you haven’t already — and so it’s been clear for some time that this would be the kind of report to strain hard against the envelope of its original terms of reference.

In the context of unprecedentedly strained relations between ministers and officials and poor morale after a period of political turbulence, Maude was asked to investigate how changes to governance and accountability could improve efficiency and policy delivery. That was back in July 2022 — and frustrations with and within the system have persisted through the intervening 16 months.

The result is a timely and, in many ways, radical review. The chief constraint on the policy ideas present here is self-imposed: Maude excluded anything that would call for primary legislation, so as to make his contributions more immediately practicable — one of the main reasons this report comes out against a statutory footing for the Civil Service.

Maude describes a system that is set up in a way that makes tensions between politicians and officials unavoidable; one that is failing in many of its obligations and is resistant to improvement (a feature we at Reform recently investigated too). The causes? A lack of external scrutiny, confused and limited leadership, “unwieldy” central government structures, and an expectation of ministerial accountability that is disproportionate to politicans’ actual ability to direct the performance of the system.

Maude goes out of his way to clarify that his criticisms are aimed at the Whitehall system, rather than the civil servants who work within it, adding that he has “found that much of the strongest criticism of the institution comes from the civil servants themselves” — an account which certainly chimes with the findings from our recent report Civil Unrest.

Reforming system leadership

Given all of these challenges (and their persistence), Maude sets out the case for “holistic systemic change, over a timescale that runs well beyond the timespan of any single administration.” No surprise, then, that he hopes for cross-party engagement with his ideas.

Maude makes a compelling case for some quite fundamental changes to how the Civil Service is led. This would mean replacing the current model, with an extremely powerful Cabinet Secretary who is supplemented by a Chief Operating Officer, with one that features a full time Head of the Civil Service, directly empowered by a letter of delegation from the Prime Minister. Why? Well, if nothing else, because it’s unrealistic to expect a single Cabinet secretary to be both an “experienced operational system leader” and a “brilliant policy official” all at the same time. To secure the former set of skills, recruitment from the private sector should be embraced.

How to ensure that this new Head of the Civil Service has the requisite authority? By enacting major structural changes at the heart of Whitehall. Maude envisions a system where the home civil service is no longer a “fudge” of semi-autonomous departments, but an unequivocally unitary body. He sets out a structural change where a new department — an “Office of Budget and Management” — absorbs the cross-cutting functions currently seated in the Cabinet Office and takes on responsibility for public expenditure from the Treasury. A strengthened and unified No 10 operation is produced by a merger with what remains of the Cabinet Office, and Maude is clear that this separation will be key not only to ensuring the authority of the Head of the Civil Service, but also for avoiding an overly presidential executive.

The essential counterpart to these changes in leadership and structure will be a commensurate change to governance in the system — currently “byzantine and opaque” — and that would mean big changes for both the Civil Service Board and the Civil Service Commission. Maude calls for simplification even to the point where “Sunday Morning Colleagues” is carefully managed so as not to take on institutional significance and so confuse matters.

The Commission, meanwhile, is reformed to be self-evidently independent — with minimal direct participation by civil servants themselves — a role in the appraisal of Permanent Secretaries, bipartisan support (and membership), and a responsibility to report annually to Parliament.

We at Reform see these as ideas worth embracing. It won’t be easy to dislocate systemic leadership from the fact of the Cabinet Secretary’s sheer proximity to the Prime Minister, but Maude’s proposals stand the best chance of doing so by creating a genuine alternative power base at the executive core of government and genuinely delegating authority to the new Head. Siphoning away some Treasury power would be sensible, and bring our system more in line with how things are handled in other countries. We aren’t sure it would be necessary to insist on private sector origins for the new Head of the Civil Service – the right attitude would be to secure someone with the right skills and gravitas, no matter the CV.

Getting the right people

Maude’s recommendations in this sphere — covering ministers, special advisers, civil servants and Arms’ Length Bodies — have already attracted media attention. His most notable, and indeed controversial, recommendation is that ministers should be allowed a greater role in some civil service appointments.

In practice this means that ministers — subject to agreement from the improved Civil Service Commission — should be able to remove officials that appear to be impeding “delivery of a policy priority”, manage some recruitment processes directly, and once again appoint their own head of office and extended ministerial offices directly.

Maude goes to great pains to pre-empt the argument that these recommendations could become a back door for politicisation. He highlights how ministerial power over civil service appointments works successfully in comparable democracies like Australia and New Zealand. He further highlights how any danger of it working less successfully in the UK would be countered by the increased powers he suggests should be provided to the Commission.

As we at Reform have previously explored, the relationship between civil servants and ministers is of crucial importance to the functioning of government. Providing ministers with power over civil service appointments is not necessarily a high road to politicisation. But it would have the potential to dramatically alter this fundamental relationship. This alteration could be positive, encouraging greater trust and efficiency between civil servants and ministers, or negative, encouraging civil servants towards groupthink due to fears they will be removed from their job for providing advice the minister finds unpalatable. Any implementation of these recommendations will need to carefully consider these and other possible consequences.

Maude also argues the case for bringing internal civil service appointments more in line with external civil service appointments.

The Civil Service Commission’s remit should be extended so that they oversee and scrutinise appointments from elsewhere in Whitehall (at Grade 6 and above) as well as appointments of people from outside the system, and guarantee that all of these are being made on the basis of merit.

Currently the Commission only oversees external appointments and internal appointments are required to only “consider” merit, which Maude argues “has contributed to the [civil] service’s closed culture”, while the limited guidance on internal civil service appointments places the UK “alone among democratic nations”. We agree.

Maude wants senior civil servants, as a category, to be handled differently — with fixed-term appointments and a new requirement that they seek permission from their current line manger before applying for jobs elsewhere in the private sector. And Maude does not limit himself to reflections on the quality of civil servants — he is also concerned about the selection of ministers and their advisers, and the extent to which these critical decision-makers are prepared and trained for their roles: “more attention” is needed in such areas.

There are welcome measures here to help reduce churn and to make it easier to remove underperforming people when necessary. Maude’s thoughts on ministers and special adviser are — understandably — far less developed, but it is telling that he considered it unavoidable to bring these aspects of the system into his analysis.

Accountability

One aspect of accountability that was, rightly, a major focus of the Maude review, was the use of financial and management information in government, described by many commentators, including a number of departmental non-executive directors (NEDs), as “variable at best”. This information even at the basic level of headcount for specific roles, or data on areas of operational spending, is too often absent from departments or reported inconsistently, preventing serious comparison and analysis.

Without high-quality, consistent and transparent data, it becomes difficult to accurately assess performance, understand bottlenecks and ultimately hold Whitehall leaders to account. As our recent paper An efficiency mindset points out, this information must be “laser focused on the needs of decision-makers”, so that it can be applied to improving departments’ day-to-day activity. Lord Maude implies the same, and recommends that reviewing this information should become a “standing item” on the agenda of every departmental board meeting. He also gives NEDs a critical role in this regard suggesting that, if they are dissatisfied with the quality or consistency of performance data, they should raise this with the National Audit Office, copying in the Government lead NED, Head of the Civil Service and First Civil Service Commissioner.

Relatedly, Lord Maude considers accountability for the policy advice given by the civil service and the evidence this is based on. He considers, but rejects “for the time being” the idea that all policy advice given to ministers should be made public. Instead, he recommends that whenever a policy decision is announced, the “evidence and data that underpin the decision” should be made public alongside the decision itself. Reform has previously argued there is insufficient transparency around the evidence policy decisions are based on and that, in particular, the lack of rules governing the publication of evaluations can mean that “inconvenient” analysis is withheld, undermining accountability

On the more radical end, Lord Maude also suggests introducing annual audits of the quality and accuracy of policy advice given by civil servants, led by the Civil Service Commission and “reported annually to Parliament” — interestingly, carried out not by the civil service, but by “academia, think tanks and perhaps … NGOs and business”. While this would of course have to be done in a way that’s compatible with genuine learning and actionable feedback, it’s a potentially positive proposal for improving the accountability of advice that otherwise goes largely unseen by the public it’s intended to serve.

Just as interesting, are the reform areas the review considers — such as the siloed nature of departments' work and the limitations of cabinet government — but that are beyond its immediate remit. At the same time, many of the recommendations that are made are refreshingly radical, cover a lot of ground and (a big plus in Reform's view), are rooted in a clear-eyed understanding of the barriers to change.