Open Government, Open Civil Service

John Rentoul

NickMacLarge 220x146 Open Government, Open Civil ServiceBenedict Brogan in the Telegraph this morning had the news that the civil servant head of the Downing Street Policy Unit is to be replaced by a political appointee. This is a sensible attempt by David Cameron to give the No 10 operation more political direction, rather than a new front in the “War on Whitehall”, a clever journalistic creation of The Times.

Generally, I would say that the relationship between Coalition politicians and civil servants is strong. As evidence of this, I cite the confidence of civil service leaders in being more open than their predecessors.

Last week, for example, the Mile End Group, the contemporary history centre at Queen Mary, University of London, was invited into the Treasury to hear a lecture by Nick Macpherson, the Permanent Secretary (pictured), on “The Origins of Treasury Control”.

It was a fine talk, delivered with the driest wit. Macpherson started by saying “I shall confine myself to the modern era”, by which he meant the last 400 years. His first milestone was the Second Dutch War of 1667.

“For those of you stuck in the present,” he said, he would bring the story up to the present day, and so he did. But the history was of high quality. It is no coincidence, he reminded us, that the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Treasury, that Government whips in the Commons are Lord Commissioners of HM Treasury and that the Government front bench is known as the Treasury bench.

He traced the origins of the Treasury’s superiority complex, noting that, when recruitment by open competition was introduced in the civil service in the 1860s,

the Foreign Office and Home Office exempted themselves on the grounds that performance in those departments hinged on character and not intellect … This resulted in the Treasury attracting a more able – though not a more diverse – intake.

Macpherson exemplifies this superiority today, saying in answer to a question about whether he had thought about applying for the job of Head of the Home Civil Service that he had, but that he had quickly decided: “I am a Treasury official first and a civil servant second.”

His own career in the Treasury traced some more recent history:

When I joined the Treasury in the 1980s I had to approve Forestry Commission spending on a hut in the Lake District costing just £15,000. Today, the relevant delegation for Treasury approval is £100 million.

In answer to questions, he paid tribute to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research as part of the informal system of checks and balances that constrain Treasury power. He said nice things about Michael Heseltine’s plan for stimulating growth, and about the German system, which divides the functions of a finance ministry and an economics ministry.

William Keegan of The Observer asked if, with Treasury forecasts always wrong and the Bank of England’s inflation target always missed, he was apprehensive about the future? He said no.

It is not often that a serving permanent secretary takes part in an on-the-record discussion like this, least of all that of the Treasury. It means, as I pointed out last week of the openness of Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary – and Bob Kerslake, the Head of the Home Civil Service has also given newspaper interviews and gone on Twitter – that senior civil servants are going to be dragged more and more into political battles.

But I always substitute the word “democratic” when people use “political” in a pejorative sense. A confident and open mandarinate is good for democracy.

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