Michael Gove, FDR, and civil service reform — oh my

I applaud Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove for making this detailed case for civil service reform at the Ditchley Foundation’s annual lecture on 28 June 2020: The privilege of public service.

In this post, I have made some specific comments on areas of the lecture where I have particular expertise. I will leave the wider critique of his political philosophy, and Rooseveltian history, to others (although so far, it has not been kind.)

The speech has a welcome focus on data and evaluation (of the social as well as economic impact) of policies. But (§87) you cannot publish anonymised high-dimensional data while protecting privacy. You need to give protected access to researchers, as we wrote in 2013. Ditto for §88 (“Suitably anonymised as I say the deep and broad pool of health data we have can improve diagnostics and treatment, it can support life science innovation and it can close the health inequality gap.”)

Mr Gove wants civil servants to have “deep, domain-specific, knowledge.” (§94) Does he realise that goes against the entire philosophy, human resources policies, and typical career route of the recent civil service, and what a profound change this would be? (Many of those that had long experience and expertise found themselves eased into early retirement during the cuts of the Cameron administration.) I wish the government chief scientific adviser luck in his efforts to increase the numbers of science and engineering graduates entering the civil service “fast stream”.

Mr Gove wants “tight, evidence-rich, fact-based” submissions (the formal documents civil servants use to ask for a decision from a minister, maintaining an evidence trail.) Ministers could demand those today. The fact they seem to prefer faster (“agile”), higher volumes of these, leads sometimes to (in my experience) slapdash, barely considered, politicised embarrassments. Why not make these automatically available to select committees, or even (gasp) the public, so external experts can critique and feed in more diverse knowledge and experience?

The minister lists a number of examples (§97) of specific expertise he thinks officials should have. I actually think they should be trained instead to make better use of external expertise, because they will never have the time to specialise to the extent academics and practitioners do. (Here’s how I did this while working at the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.) 

Gove rightly notes the damage done by “the whirligig of Civil Service transfers and promotions” (§101), and the great “What Works” centres (§99). And that “we need to ensure that basic writing, meeting chairing and time management skills are de rigueur for all policy” officials. (I would go much further than that.) I was astonished when I became a mid-career civil servant to receive a hour’s training on my laptop and how DCMS’ Google Docs installation worked, and nothing else! (I later took peer-led “lunch and learn” sessions on writing a submission, project management, etc.)

It’s great that Gove is so pro-experimentation. That fundamentally requires devolution, and push-back against the notion of the “postcode lottery”. However, when he says “We should also be fearless to compare individual courts, judges and CPS managers on their efficacy on processing cases” (§120), he really needs to read Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke’s new book Competition Overdose, especially the section on toxic competition.

All this said: you cannot in any seriousness make arguments about better use of evidence while promoting Brexit. The post-truth nature of so much of Gove, Johnson and allies’ political activities shows that a greater focus on use of evidence in public policy (??) has sadly led politicians (and voters) unhappy with the political direction evidence suggests to simply refocus on alternative “truths” instead.

I am also very in favour of government being distributed around the UK, but there is no “metropolitan” or “elite” truth ??‍♂️… even though diversity in lived experience and background of civil servants and politicians is critical. Giving civil servants the right to work at any of the 20 hubs being built around the country might be a better idea than trying to move individual departments outside London, inhibiting collaboration between them. I am also well aware there are many non-simplistic “truths” 🙂

There have already been a great many responses to Gove’s speech, and I look forward to reading other people’s comments.