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STEVE HILTON: My red tape nightmare convinced me PM has to take an axe to the Civil Service

One of the most widely mocked ideas associated with the ‘blue-sky thinking’ phase of the Cameron era (yes, I know there were many, mostly associated with me …) was the notion of the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’.

First introduced in a David Cameron speech to the Google ‘Zeitgeist’ conference in California (where else?), the theory was that thanks to technology, citizens could be given the ability to access and control many public services without the need for giant, faceless bureaucracies in Whitehall — or smaller but equally faceless ones in the town hall.

Start by giving people, families or neighbourhoods their own budgets to spend. Break up public sector monopolies and loosen anti-competitive regulations to create a range of different providers offering to run services.

It could be familiar things such as managing the local park; it could be new versions of services traditionally run by government — like a group of parents setting up a school. Or it could be something even more innovative … a completely different way of offering elderly care, for example.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with Boris that we just have to take an axe to it all. Not primarily to save money ¿ although there¿s no question that is a necessity. But to help reduce the stultifying impact of bureaucracy on every business and every citizen in Britain

In the end, I find myself agreeing with Boris that we just have to take an axe to it all. Not primarily to save money — although there’s no question that is a necessity. But to help reduce the stultifying impact of bureaucracy on every business and every citizen in Britain

The providers of these services could be private sector companies or new start-ups; some might be charities or social enterprises started by former government employees. Regardless of their ownership, all providers would have to publish transparent data about their performance, so people could judge who offered the service closest to what they were looking for, and the best value.

It was all about rethinking how government works, in order to give taxpayers better, more responsive services. In the process, the size of the Civil Service could be cut dramatically. If citizens are dealing directly with service providers, who needs all those bureaucrats managing everything from afar? Hence … the Post-Bureaucratic Age.

All this came flooding back to me as I read the news about Boris Johnson’s intention to cut the Civil Service by a fifth, reducing the number of civil servants by 91,000 and saving billions that could be handed back to the public in tax cuts to help offset the pain of rampant inflation.

It was met by predictable howls of rage in the usual quarters — that is, anonymous civil servants complaining in their house newspaper, The Guardian: ‘The vast majority of the UK’s 475,000-odd civil servants are sick of political psychodrama and don’t care exactly when Boris Johnson decides to scuttle off into the gilded obscurity of the panel comedy shows … but we do care about the damage his necrotic and bullying period of misrule threatens to wreak on public services.’

I concluded the best way to actually deliver our promises on deregulation and decentralisation was to implement a Civil Service version of the ¿blunt cuts¿ approach the Treasury had applied to spending

I concluded the best way to actually deliver our promises on deregulation and decentralisation was to implement a Civil Service version of the ¿blunt cuts¿ approach the Treasury had applied to spending

I concluded the best way to actually deliver our promises on deregulation and decentralisation was to implement a Civil Service version of the ‘blunt cuts’ approach the Treasury had applied to spending

So much for the Civil Service’s vaunted political impartiality!

The anonymous author goes on to claim that working from home has made the Civil Service work better, that there are no more efficiency gains to be made, and that ‘cutting one in five of us would have a devastating impact on public services’.

Well — as the saying goes — he (or she, or they) would say that wouldn’t he? Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and civil servants don’t tend to welcome sweeping cuts to the bureaucracies they operate.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the largest Civil Service union, Public and Commercial Services, announced at the PCS conference this week that his members would vote on a national strike ballot in September.

But there was one thing in the anonymous civil servant’s intemperate and wildly partisan rant in The Guardian that actually rang true: the assertion that ‘We aren’t idlers: in fact, we’ve never worked harder or more effectively, or at such personal cost’.

I have absolutely no way of verifying this claim — indeed it is pretty much unverifiable. But it strikes me as being believable. Think about the pressures civil servants have had to deal with in the recent past: preparing for different scenarios depending on the outcome of the Brexit referendum (and two general elections in quick succession); adjusting to the very different styles and priorities of three prime ministers in as many years; drawing up and then implementing the Brexit agreements; responding to the pandemic and lockdowns, and doing all this while normal work patterns were completely disrupted.

Just as in any organisation, you will no doubt be able to find members of the Civil Service who don’t pull their weight, produce work of inferior quality, or actively try to sabotage the plans handed down to them from on high. It’s the job of managers to spot poor performers, help them improve and if they don’t — move them out of the organisation.

But most of the civil servants I met and worked with during my short time in No 10 were true professionals, incredibly hard-working, open-minded, energetic and genuinely committed to the public interest.

The problem isn’t the people. It’s the purpose. What exactly is the point of a particular programme, or department, or bureaucratic scheme?

The civil servants running it may very well be doing so faithfully and diligently but if the initiative itself is unnecessary, counter-productive or poorly designed then all the hard work and professionalism in the world won’t save it from being a waste of taxpayers’ money.

That’s why, for the first few years that I spent thinking about these questions, I was strongly opposed to the kind of blanket, across-the-board Civil Service cuts floated by Boris in the Mail a couple of weeks ago.

Instead of arbitrary top-down reductions, we should concentrate on building the right programmes from the bottom-up, redesigning the way that government works, albeit with efficiency and saving taxpayers’ money in mind.

So the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’ idea, developed while we were in opposition, was not driven primarily by a desire to cut costs or reduce the number of civil servants. It was conceived as a sincere attempt to improve the quality of public services. A smaller Whitehall was the by-product, not the main point.

One of the most widely mocked ideas associated with the ¿blue-sky thinking¿ phase of the Cameron era (yes, I know there were many, mostly associated with me ¿) was the notion of the ¿Post-Bureaucratic Age¿. Steve Hilton is pictured with David Cameron on the night that he became Prime Minister

One of the most widely mocked ideas associated with the ¿blue-sky thinking¿ phase of the Cameron era (yes, I know there were many, mostly associated with me ¿) was the notion of the ¿Post-Bureaucratic Age¿. Steve Hilton is pictured with David Cameron on the night that he became Prime Minister

One of the most widely mocked ideas associated with the ‘blue-sky thinking’ phase of the Cameron era (yes, I know there were many, mostly associated with me …) was the notion of the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’. Steve Hilton is pictured with David Cameron on the night that he became Prime Minister

Similarly, in the weeks after the coalition government took office in 2010, the imperative to reduce spending in order to restore the health of the public finances was to be delivered not by blunt cuts to each department, but by the creative re-imagining of what government provides.

We were told to think boldly — nothing is off limits! — let’s find virtue in the necessity of austerity by transforming the British state into a model of 21st-century innovation.

Well that didn’t last long.

Even as our teams were eagerly generating ideas for revolutionary change, the more prosaic reality hit as the Treasury sent instructions to spending departments that they should immediately submit plans for two different scenarios: a 25 per cent and a 40 per cent budget reduction. The blunt cuts were back.

You can see why. It’s all very well to dream of re-inventing the state but in the meantime, UK government debt was at unsustainable levels, risking economic instability and real harm to people’s living standards. Slash spending and put the blue-sky thinking on hold!

In fact, I came to my own, personal version of the ‘40 per cent cuts’ directive as a result of my attempts to push forward the commitments we had made in the Coalition Agreement about reducing red tape and decentralising power to local communities.

One almost comical example was the process through which we tried to cut the number of regulations. In designing the initiative, my observation had been that every government in recent memory had come to office pledging to deregulate, and yet the burden of regulation seemed to rise inexorably regardless of who was in power or how many ‘bureaucracy-busting’ initiatives they launched.

Let’s reverse the default assumption, I argued. Instead of chipping away at the giant edifice of accumulated regulation, let’s start by notionally scrapping them all and then seeing which ones we actually need.

Civil servants duly prepared a compendium of every single regulation the UK Government imposed — I seem to remember a figure of around 29,000, although many of these had vast sub-categories — organised by subject area: construction, transport and so on.

The plan was to hold a series of sessions where a group of us would review the relevant Civil Service experts’ assessments of which regulations were absolutely necessary.

I remember the first meeting. It was about the retail sector. The papers were colour-coded, sheet after sheet with descriptions of each regulation and its legal status. The vast majority of the items were marked red, with a handful that were green and one or two that were yellow.

‘So the ones in green are the ones we keep?’ I asked hopefully.

‘Er, no. Those are the ones we think we can probably do without.’

We then spent almost the entire meeting, as I recall, debating whether one of the red items might be moved to green. It was something to do with men’s pyjamas. The meeting ended with hundreds of items that had not even been discussed.

This is how they win, I realised immediately afterwards. There are just too many of them and not enough of us. They mean well: all the ‘experts’ in the meeting had put forward well-informed views about the absolute necessity of retaining the pyjama rules. But as long as you have bureaucrats whose job it is to oversee red tape about men’s pyjamas, there will be red tape about men’s pyjamas.

It was exactly the same with our efforts to identify functions of central government that could be devolved to local government.

In meeting after meeting, I was told that while of course it would be ideal if such-and-such an activity could be entirely handed over to local councils, or better still to individuals to handle … there would be tremendous risks associated with the transition, and especially high presentational risks. By which they mean: bad publicity if something goes wrong.

Which is a surefire way of killing anything, especially when you have politicians making the final decision.

For all these reasons, I concluded the best way to actually deliver our promises on deregulation and decentralisation was to implement a Civil Service version of the ‘blunt cuts’ approach the Treasury had applied to spending.

An enterprising young civil servant in the Downing Street Policy Unit suggested that at the height of the British Empire, when the Civil Service was responsible for the administration of territory that spanned the globe, a large part of the bureaucracy was based in one building, Somerset House, in London, which could accommodate roughly 4,000 officials.

The modern Civil Service was no longer even responsible for administering the whole of the UK, let alone an empire, and yet it had more than 400,000 officials — more than ten times as many.

Thus was initiated ‘Project Somerset House’, an exercise to try to work out what our priorities would be if we were to reduce the Civil Service to the alleged imperial level — a cut of 90 per cent. It wasn’t intended as an actual proposal, rather as a mechanism to force us to evaluate which functions of the bureaucracy were truly essential. Of course, nothing happened.

This is why, in the end, I find myself agreeing with Boris that we just have to take an axe to it all. Not primarily to save money — although there’s no question that is a necessity. But to help reduce the stultifying impact of bureaucracy on every business and every citizen in Britain. The country will be much better for it, in every way.

Towards the very end of my time in Downing Street, when I had already announced that I was leaving for California, I decided to have some fun at the end of one of the most frustrating meetings that I regularly attended.

I had recently read a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs and enjoyed reading about the ludicrously aggressive — and somewhat petulant — way he had once stormed out of a meeting to discuss the planned features of the iPod.

I decided to repurpose the Steve Jobs line at the end of a meeting on Civil Service reform: ‘Honestly, I’m sick of you people. Just do whatever the f*** you want, nothing’s going to change’.

Well — ten years on, looks like I had it just about right.