A 'Hard Rain' is forecast for Whitehall
It's certainly been an eventful few days. A prediction from Dominic Cummings, the PM's Chief Adviser that a 'hard rain is coming' for Whitehall; a landmark speech by Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Office Minister, setting out the Government's vision for civil service reform; and the announced departure of Mark Sedwill, Head of the Civil Service.
There's a very clear message from all three developments - that the machinery of government is set for a profound shake-up on the same scale as the 'reward and reform' days of Blair, and the 'efficiency and reform' drive of Lord Francis Maude (one of our keynote speakers at the upcoming GovX Summit), and that the destination is a radically more diverse and decentralised public sector.
The case for decentralisation #1
In a transcript of Cummings' weekly Zoom meeting with Government Special Advisors, the PM's Chief Adviser informed them that the stories about No 10 wanting to create a hub and spoke system are "more media inventions", and said that the goal is to make the centre smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals to improve performance.
"Anybody who has read what I've said about management over the years will know it's ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall's problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation. It's already far too big, incoherent and adds to the problems with departments".
The case for decentralisation #2
Gove delivered the annual Ditchley Lecture on Saturday night, a bravura statement of intent on the importance of public sector reform in order to tackle inequality. You can read it all here - but it ends, all the more powerfully, on a personal note: "My driving mission in politics it to make opportunity more equal. I want to ensure that whatever their background, every child has the chance to succeed, and nothing we do should hold them back."
According to Gove, the Covid-19 crisis has shown up inequality at home and abroad, and this comes hard on the heels of a general crisis of faith in Government - of which the 2016 Referendum was one expression.
One of the key thrusts of the speech was the need to widen the civil service talent pool in order to avoid group think, and that this would mean "relocating Government decision-making centres."
"We need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them."
The case for decentralisation #3
There are many readings for the early departure of Sedwill - but what is clear is that we're seeing the roles he held being split up, with the National Security Adviser role going to David Frost, currently overseeing the negotiations on the future relationship with the EU.
Lord Ricketts, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2000-2001, the precursor to the National Security Adviser role, said on social media that this move was long overdue: "I found the job to be more than full time and the world has got much more dangerous/unpredictable since then. Don't personally see how it can be combined with Cabinet Secretary especially now, no matter how good the individual."
Hot take: bring your brolly
It's crystal clear that there is complete alignment at the centre of government for enabling a different kind of public sector to emerge. It is not the case that the civil service hasn't been reforming - but now Government is saying that the social, economic and technology changes in wider society now require a dramatic change of pace.