By Tony Collins
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has intervened to reject departmental projects a “massive” number of times says Ian Watmore, Cabinet Office permanent secretary and former Government CIO.
Evidence Ian Watmore gave to the Public Administration Committee last week suggests that the Cabinet Office’s saying “no” repeatedly to departmental projects has changed behaviours within the civil service.
Watmore, the Cabinet Office’s permanent secretary, told Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, that Francis Maude and his officials now have the power to challenge departments’ civil servants who try and ignore Cabinet Office recommendations.
“In the past, those controls did not exist so they [officials in departments and agencies] could ignore us if they wanted to and carry on as before,” said Watmore. “Under the new regime, they cannot do that because in the end, if they ignore the recommendations that we come to, then they have to seek approval for the expenditure they were going to make on their projects and Francis Maude would, in his own words, happily say ‘no’ in such situations, and say ‘no’ again until people actually came to the table and changed what they were doing.”
Elphicke: Has he done so to date?
Watmore: Yes, an absolutely massive number of times.
Since departments have found it harder to get the Cabinet Office to endorse their projects, departmental officials are now “bringing their plans to us much earlier in the timeframe because they do not want us saying ‘no’ when it is well advanced”, said Watmore.
“So we are getting into a dialogue with them early on about what the best way of doing something is. When we have agreed on the best way of doing something, when it comes back for approval, it gets nodded through and that is working much more effectively.”
Watmore added that the Cabinet Office’s controls will become redundant over time “because people will behave the right way”. He said: “Like the Carlsberg complaints department was the analogy I had in my head; it exists but it is never used.. At the moment we use it a lot because, left to their own devices, people would do things that were suboptimal when you look at it from across Government.
“Francis Maude is in a position to say, ‘No, you are not doing that. You are going to do it this way and reuse somebody else’s system or somebody else’s way of doing things’. He is very hands-on and vigorous at doing that.
Watmore’s evidence confirms that Maude remains the mainspring of change in the way government works. Without Maude the unreasonably costly status quo would prevail. He may be in danger of spinning. But how many ministers like to say “no”? He is invaluable for that reason alone.
What will happen when Maude is promoted, stands aside or retires? The minister who likes to say “yes” will earn the respect of some of his civil servants. The refreshing thing about Maude is that he is happy to take his plaudits from taxpayers, not officialdom.
Watmore’s evidence to the Public Administration Committee, 13 March 2012.
Institute for Government open letter on civil service reforms – the problems and opportunities.
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