Civil service “full of brilliant people terribly managed”

By Tony Collins

Andrew Adonis was transport secretary in Tony Blair’s government. Last year he became director of the Institute for Government which Adonis describes as a thinktank that speaks truth to power.  Among other things it produced the excellent System error: fixing the flaws in government IT which advocates an agile approach to innovation at the front line.  

Now in an interview with  Adonis points out the institutional weaknesses of the civil service.  “My criticisms are about the machine,” he says. “My own view is that the civil service is full of brilliant people who are terribly managed.”

One of the biggest problems is what he calls the  “laughably” named permanent civil service. People change jobs because of a merry-go-round culture which makes no sense, he says.  It’s not a problem that’s going away: since the general election ten of the 16 departments of state have had changes in their permanent secretary.

“The machine really is very badly run,” he says.


What Adonis says is important because institutional resistance to change and innovation is largely because what exists is said to be work well. It doesn’t work well because government administration costs tens of billions much more than it should and the National Audit Office has found that fraud and error in two of the biggest departments, HMRC and DWP, are at unacceptable levels. 

It’s time that the point made by Adonis, and many others of some authority, is given more credence.  Systems within government need changing and, particularly, simplifying  – not in a rush and not without proper thought and testing.

The old argument that government administration aint broke so leave it alone doesn’t stand up to independent scrutiny. It is broke and it needs intelligent, inventive and cheap-to-implement change.

3 responses to “Civil service “full of brilliant people terribly managed”

  1. Tony Collins

    Thank you David.


  2. Who knows? It may be a temporary thing. But the Adonis interview has now, for the moment, disappeared from the website. 404 Page not found.

    There is still a Google cached version available at


  3. “My criticisms are about the machine”, says Mr Adonis, and “My own view is that the civil service is full of brilliant people who are terribly managed” and “The machine really is very badly run”.

    Sir Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and head of the home civil service, really must respond. What will he say?


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