Here’s a role for a blogger that I don’t think anyone covers. The Whitehall blog. It’s a truism about British journalism, going back to Anthony Sampson if memory serves, that the newspapers cover Westminster politics obsessively but they hardly cover Whitehall at all. When they do, their service is even more conventionalised and less penetrating than usual. Partly, this is because the civil service is better at discretion than the politicians. But it’s not exactly unknown for officials to brief the papers, now is it?
For example, I have an impression that there is a shift of power and influence going on. David Cameron and Francis Maude’s biggest personnel decision so far has been not replacing Gus O’Donnell with another civil servant in the same role. O’Donnell combined the roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, as most of the postwar top officials did. He was the heir to the apostolic succession of the popes of bureaucracy.
Cameron and Maude decided to split up the job, separating the top job in the Cabinet Office, which controls the central government’s policy-making secretariat and also the Joint Intelligence Committee machinery, the role of Head of the Home Civil Service, which acts as the senior pro for civil servants, and the role of the official responsible for the prime minister’s personal staff. Taking forward a trend that was already going on in the Blair/Brown years, this job was cut out of whole cloth, creating a Prime Minister’s Office with the new domain name pmo.gov.uk and a Permanent Secretary for the PMO to lead it. This job was entrusted to O’Donnell’s heir apparent, Jeremy Heywood.
You guess that one of the reasons for this was to dilute the power and influence of the top civil service. All politicians are suspicious of it, and Tories especially. Why did the civil servants go along with it? Well, a big New Labour obsession was the idea that the traditional divide between policy-making and operational civil servants was pathological. Rather than a strict, and class-associated, divide, they wanted the top civil service to be closely concerned with “delivery”. The institution didn’t like it, and having a long memory is its business.
That leaves a couple of questions. The first is “Did it work?” The second is “Who of the three won?” The answers seem to be “No” and “Heywood”, as far as I can make out. I get the impression that the civil service has regained some influence in killing off the sillier ideas, and I think Steve Hilton’s sudden exit from Downing Street is pretty much entirely down to them. Hilton’s title had been upgraded from director of strategy to director of implementation, pretty clearly suggesting that he would be pissing in Sir Humphrey’s pool. That was before his brilliant idea to sack everyone they couldn’t fit in Somerset House (he may or may not know that half of it is King’s College law school and quite a bit more is an art gallery these days). And Heywood was personally insistent on getting rid of Hilton, something I think we can all “shudder a grateful amen” to. Generally, he seems to be on the rise, suggesting that not only has the system seen off the minister, but also that closeness to No.10 beats institutional bulk and headcount.
Now, what I want is this kind of stuff but with more links and goats and stuff, every week. All right? The traditional answer to this is that someone tried, back in the 1970s, but the pushback was dreadful. Well, that’s another way of saying that it’s the sort of thing that only dirty hippies would do, and that’s precisely what blogging is for.