Michael Gove on Civil Service reform and ministerial (un)accountability

Last month, Dominic Cummings warned the Civil Service that “a hard rain is coming”. Ten days ago Michael Gove put some flesh on the bones of that message in his landmark speech at Ditchley Park on the future of government (“The privilege of public service”). He began with an arresting reference to the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, going on to suggest that now is the time for a revolution in the practice of government in Britain. On the basis of his speech, however, one might question Gove’s revolutionary credentials. Beneath the surface of his knowing nod to Marxist revolution lies a reactionary programme.

The appeal by the Minister for the Cabinet Office to Gramsci was couched in his famous observation that “The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying – and the new cannot be born”. But unlike many who invoke this line Gove included its sub-clause: “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Gove went on to claim that in the past decade we have entered just such a period. He argued that to address our age’s “morbid symptoms”, most notably popular disenchantment with the existing political system, “The whole culture of Government … must change”.

Gove’s target in his speech had two elements: the Civil Service, and political constraints on ministers.

Civil Service Reform

Unfortunately, Mr Gove appeared to have no awareness that the problems with the Civil Service he identified have been on the agenda for more than half a century.

For example, his focus on the need for government to embrace the “‘exciting new possibilities” of rapid scientific and technological change catapults us back to Harold Wilson’s famous speech to the Labour Party conference in 1963, in which he called for a “new Britain” to be forged in the “white heat” of such a revolution to ensure the country prospered from it.

Likewise, Gove’s call for government departments to be moved to depressed areas was evocative of regional policy in the 1960s and 1970s. During those years, Whitehall relocated administrative functions employing tens of thousands of people out of London to places like Swansea and Newcastle.

His point that too many civil servants are “generalists” was also profoundly evocative of the 1960s. He asserted that civil service recruitment and training need a radical overhaul to create a service staffed to a much greater extent than now by civil servants with deep ‘domain specific’ expertise. In doing so, however, he was echoing the 1968 Fulton Report and its recommendation that specialists be “on top” not just “on tap”, thereby ensuring that expert “problem solving” would replace administrative “buck-passing”.

Gove’s desire for “a proper, and properly-resourced, campus for training those in government” also echoes Fulton’s recommended Civil Service College, tasked not just with training senior Civil Service managers but with research into how best to improve public administration. The College was created in 1970, later morphing into the National School of Government. Unfortunately, in neither guise did it become a British version of the famed French École Nationale d’Administration, as had been intended. Quite the reverse.  From the late-1980s the College was forced by ministers to compete in the market for training – marketisation being seen at that time as the best (if not the only) alternative to outright privatisation as a means of efficiently delivering services that the customer rather than the producer wanted. As a result, instead of producing an elite cadre of highly trained public administrators the College ended up focusing increasingly on mid- to low-level training (which is where the bulk of demand lay). It was finally wound up by Gove’s Conservative predecessor Francis Maude in 2012.

This is not to say that Mr Gove’s complaints are entirely ill-founded (with the exception of the desire to encourage the further truncation and simplification of submissions to ministers, which seems depressingly superficial – Mrs Thatcher, for instance, had no difficulty in processing long memoranda from officials, recognising that detail mattered).

In particular, Gove’s desire to halt the insanely counter-productive “whirligig of Civil Service transfers and promotions” – which takes place under the guise of on-the-job experience acquisition – is fully justified. Although, again, it echoes Fulton, and it might have been nice if he had considered the implications of his acknowledgement that ministers have their own whirligig (he, for example, is the seventh Minister for the Civil Service in ten years).

Overall, however, there is remarkably little that is new in Gove’s complaints about the Civil Service – something he seems strikingly unaware of. He might be well- advised to consider why such problems persist despite over fifty years of almost continuous Civil Service reform by governments of different parties. He might also ask why the Civil Service itself seems so unaware of this history.

Ministerial Accountability

If Mr Gove’s desire to reform the Civil Service was wearingly familiar the other target of his speech – the need to improve the ability of ministers to achieve their objectives – was frankly alarming.

The complaint that the political system discourages risk-taking by government departments is probably valid. As he noted in this speech there is a reason for this, which is that both civil servants and ministers are accountable to Parliament for decisions taken and monies disbursed.

The main targets of Gove’s criticism are the National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The NAO is a body responsible to Parliament which is but the latest incarnation of an essential audit function that dates back to the early fourteenth century. The PAC is a select committee of MPs and is one of the better innovations of the past half-century – for it has considerably enhanced the democratic accountability of an increasingly powerful executive.

Both these bodies, as well as media discussion of policy failure, are alleged by Gove to privilege adherence to the status quo. They apparently do so through their censure of poor value for money and inefficient public administration, and their lack of praise for the positive returns to risk-taking. “The whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty” alleges Gove.

This is worrying.

It’s all very well for Gove to assert that “politicians like me must take responsibility for the effect of their actions and the consequences of their announcements.” In fact, the implication of his complaints about the barriers to risk-taking posed by the NAO, PAC and journalists is profoundly undemocratic.

Mr Gove’s argument can be boiled down thus: government would work much better but for the democratic system.

That might or might not be true. I suspect it is. The price of democracy is almost certainly a degree of inefficiency in public administration.

But to go down the road that Mr Gove points us to would at best be to return the British political system to an era before select committees, in which journalists tended to be deferential to ministers (an age in which poor public administration was much less visible, and almost certainly much more common).

There is another, worse, possible outcome. Taken together with the message from No. 10 that it wants to strengthen its power vis-à-vis Whitehall, Mr Gove’s recipe for better government might herald a break with modern democratic institutions and the embrace a new politics of unaccountable political autocracy.


In locating the Gove speech ideologically perhaps we should look not to Gramsci but to another famous Italian – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

As a recent Economist article noted, Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo in the original Italian), set in Sicily in the wake of Garibaldi’s invasion of that island in 1860, contained a sentence uttered by the principal protagonist, Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, that is even more famous that Gove’s quotation from Gramsci. “If we want things to stay as they are,” says the arch-conservative Fabrizio, “things will have to change”. So famous is that quotation that the cynical, profoundly reactionary and deeply nostalgic political sentiment it expresses has become known in Italy as gattopardismo.

Gove’s invocation of the need for radical change to assuage popular discontent with the existing order is, perhaps unconsciously, at once reactionary and typically gattopardist. He wants “revolutionary” reform; by implication, however he wants a counter-revolution. At best that would return us to an age in which ministers had considerably more power but were also considerably less accountable to Parliament and the public than they are today. At worst, however, the implied end is democratically unaccountable autocracy.

If a “hard rain is coming” in British government will it be a flood that washes away a lot that democrats in the UK hold dear?

This blog post draws on research conducted during the writing of The Official History of the Civil Service, Vol. 2 (R. Lowe and H. Pemberton (Routledge 2020).

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