By Rob Cuthbert
Once upon a time some politicians used to take the blame for their departments, even when civil servants were perhaps more at fault (famously, in the Crichel Down affair). And once upon a time the integrity of the civil service could be relied on, even or especially amid government mistakes. Things have moved on, even in the five years since the magnificent Blunders of our governments (King and Crewe, 2013) appeared. A review of that book by the First Civil Service Commissioner (and former DfE permanent secretary) Sir David Normington on the Civil Service Quarterly blog said:
“A common feature of the “blunders” is the extent to which policy development gets separated from the realities of the world … small groups of like-minded people in Whitehall … share the same set of assumptions and fail to test those assumptions outside the group. The group often assumes that there is only one way of doing things: a common example until recently was the assumption that the private sector is always superior in know-how and efficiency. They often have little understanding of how people on the receiving end of the policy will behave or react – what the authors call, “cultural disconnect” … this is frequently made worse by “operational disconnect” … the divorce between those who make policies and those charged with implementing them…” … since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Ministers have been judged by how active they are: by their ability to get things done, to set short deadlines, to drive things forward. This can sometimes make it difficult for civil servants to get their concerns and reservations heard. Those who have expressed doubts or argued for slower implementation, say the authors, have increasingly seen their careers blighted and been characterised as the blockers of change.”
Normington was defending the civil service, but in the Toby Young saga we see something less defensible. We are accustomed in HE to the cultural and operational disconnect: now the words of another civil servant have condemned not only the politicians but also the civil servants involved.
Toby Young was appointed to and then dis-appointed from the Board of the Office for Students over a few days in January 2018, despite the attempt by Minister Jo Johnson on 8 January to defend his appointment in Parliament. Following a media firestorm we had learned what Toby Young wrote about being invited to speak at the Brasenose ‘Gaudy’ – gathering for alumni – in 2008. It was also revealed that Young in 2017 attended a notorious eugenics conference at UCL, booked as an external event. His involvement was exposed by Private Eye and Ben van der Merwe of London Student. Anthony Seldon (VC at Buckingham, and a fully-paid-up member of those ‘like-minded people in Whitehall’) tweeted and wrote in support of Young’s appointment before doing a 180-degree turn, as he tried in vain to justify in Times Higher Education on 10 January 2018. Seldon then declared that Young was no longer, contrary to Young’s claim, a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham. His supposed three-year term would have lapsed in 2014, but in Buckingham’s recent ‘Festival of Higher Education’, Young was a speaker and was still described as a visiting fellow, as Solomon Hughes reported for Buzzfeed on 17 January 2018. Well, it was still the pantomime season: “He’s behind you! Oh no he isn’t”. Jack Grove reported Young’s departure for Times Higher Education on 9 January 2018, and Peter Scott said ‘The universities’ Faustian pact of 2010 gave us Toby Young’ in The Guardian on 9 January 2018, an argument given greater credence by media reports on 20 March 2018 that UUK had decided not to object to Toby Young’s appointment for fear of upsetting the government.
So who was responsible for the debacle? Martin Paul Eve (Birkbeck) did some FOI digging in DfE for the answer: “Despite his later back-tracking about how it was “right” for Young to resign, Michael Barber chaired the panel that appointed him (and the other members of the OfS board). This is not unexpected but it casts serious doubt on his judgement … Gordon McKenzie from GuildHE was on the panel … Previously, he was Deputy Director, HE Strategy and Policy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Stephen Jones, the senior civil servant, lists himself as “Deputy Director, Higher Education Landscape Reform” on LinkedIn.” Barber, the guru of ‘deliverology’ for Prime Minister Tony Blair, was appointed then because he favoured the political direction of the government, and presumably appointed now as chair of the OfS Board for the same reason.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments investigated the Toby Young furore and issued a damning report on 26 February 2018, which also took into account the non-appointment of an ‘acceptable’ student candidate. He complained that the DfE had delayed his investigation by five weeks by failing to supply documentation and said there was not due diligence in Young’s appointment. He noted that the preferred student candidate had their social media history exhaustively checked but there was no such check for Toby Young. Appointment of the preferred candidate was favoured by civil servants and chair Michael Barber but was overruled mainly because of objections by special advisers, who took exception to the candidate’s history of activism as a student union officer. The Commissioner concluded that “this competition had serious shortcomings”. When the three interviewed and appointable students were all rejected, an interim appointment was made from the OfS student panel. In this process ‘sift notes’ were said by DfE not to exist because OfS conducted the process, but the Commissioner unearthed a civil service note implying that lack of student union ties was an important consideration for Ministers. The DfE failed to consult the Commissioner explicitly about this interim appointment, contrary to the Governance Code for public appointments, and made a public announcement implying it was a permanent not interim appointment. The DfE then wriggled unconvincingly to try to justify its prevarication about the terms of appointment. The Commissioner expressed his ‘serious concerns’ and said: “It is now clear that the central reason was because of the political views and student union links of the main preferred candidate judged appointable by the panel”. Amatey Doku, Vice President for HE of the NUS, pointed out, in a delicious piece for WonkHE on 5 March 2018, the hypocrisy of the government in general and Jo Johnson in particular, in no-platforming NUS for advocating free speech (with NUS opposing the Prevent strategy).
All of this adds up to what, these days, seems to be politics as usual, but now with the added ingredient of the degradation of civil service integrity. The past and present civil servants who made up the panel appointing members of the OfS Board had been initially willing to go along with the appointment of Toby Young, a politically-favoured candidate whose unsuitability should have been obvious. They had at least tried to appoint one of their interviewees as the student representative, but had failed to overcome the opposition of the politically-appointed special advisers in DfE and at No 10, who are deemed to be ‘temporary’ civil servants. When the Commissioner tried to investigate, he was subject to obfuscation and delay, ultimately the responsibility of the permanent secretary, one Jonathan Slater, lately of the Cabinet Office, whose previous jobs include being Director of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, whose first Director was … Michael Barber.
The Americanisation of the civil service seems to be almost complete. At the top level, and for several layers down, the Toby Young saga suggests that the civil service comprises people appointed for their support of, or at least readiness to comply with, the political preferences of the day, overriding their duty to offer impartial advice on policy and its implementation. Oliver Wright reported for The Times on 15 March 2018 on recent research by Andrew Kakakbadse (Henley Business School), commissioned by Parliament’s Public Administration Committee. Kakabdse’s report suggested that “about half of cabinet ministers do not have a properly functioning relationship with their permanent secretaries” and “The report also found evidence of ministers breaking the code of conduct by directly intervening in the appointment of supposedly impartial officials”. Wright’s story ended with a quote from a Cabinet Office spokesman: “It is important that the civil service acts with complete impartiality, and has always prided itself on supporting the elected government of the day to carry out its mandate.”
Perhaps all is not lost. An earlier civil service reform introduced management boards including non-executive members to oversee government departments, and the DfE does indeed have such a board. How do people get appointed as non-executives? Well, if you give £3250 to Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education, and about £65000 altogether to the Conservative Party, it might help. Those were the donations by David Meller, the now-disgraced chair of the Presidents’ Club, whose sleazy men-only-plus-women-hostesses event in January was exposed by the Financial Times. Meller was a trustee of Michael Gove’s Conservative-leaning think tank Policy Exchange and had just been awarded a CBE in the 2018 Honours List, but when the FT story broke he was forced by No 10 to resign from the DfE Board. He was also co-chair of the Apprenticeship Delivery Board with Nadhim Zahawi, who was made a minister in the DfE in January 2018. Zahawi also attended the Presidents’ Club event: he said that he saw no untoward behavior but left early because he felt ‘uncomfortable’, an apparently contradictory combination. Paul Waugh had the whole story for The Huffington Post on 24 January 2018.
DfE civil servants trying to respond to the Commissioner for Public Appointments were between a rock and a hard place. Saving the minister and his fellow-travellers in OfS from their mistakes was a hard place to be, but the civil servants’ biggest mistake was losing hold of the rock of civil service integrity. Perhaps all is lost, after all.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics email@example.com