Gove believes Whitehall reform plans will not suffer because of close association with Cummings

Written by Richard Johnstone and Sam Trendall on 7 July 2020 in News
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Cabinet Office minister said that, despite the controversy that often surrounds the PM’s top adviser, ‘people are interested in Dominic and his ideas’

Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has said that he does not believe that the government’s ambitious plans for civil-service reform will suffer from their close association with Dominic Cummings.

The prime minister’s chief adviser (pictured above) was already somewhat of a divisive figure when he became subject the national media attention – and fierce public criticism – when he appeared to breach lockdown rules in May, during a trip from his London home to Durham.

Cummings has long been an advocate for Whitehall reform, including decentralisation of powers and more emphasis on the use of data science in decision-making.

Such ideas were brought into the spotlight last week during a speech given by Gove, for whom Cummings previously served as special adviser in the Department for Education.

Gove said that government would embark on a programme of far-reaching changes that will aim to improve training for civil servants, deliver more rigorous and data-led evaluation of programmes, and offer greater incentives for officials to stay in key roles. 


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The cabinet minister said that, if government was to deliver reform in areas including technical education, the environment, international development, housing and planning, digital infrastructure and procurement, “it must also reform itself”.

Appearing on Times Radio this week, Gove was asked by presenter Michael Portillo if the plans to revamp Whitehall revamp would suffer because they so closely associated with Cummings.

“I don't think so,” Gove replied. “I think, in my experience so far, people are interested in Dominic and his ideas. They wanted to make sure that not just Dominic, but that the prime minister, [No.10 policy chief] Munira Mirza, Rishi Sunak and the teams behind them are properly engaged, that their ideas and that their ambition are properly reflected in what government does.”

Raising the enduring nature of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1854 that still form the basis of how the civil service works, Portillo asked how he planned to create a broader consensus for what he labelled the Gove-Cummings plan.

Gove said that the principles of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms – that the civil service should be highly professional, independent, and chosen on a meritocratic basis – endure and are “one of the things that make the UK civil service so envied”.

He added: “Beyond that, people will focus attention on me because I gave a speech and Dominic because, you know, he has a certain media profile. Actually, the work that we're doing is work that is shared with and endorsed by other politicians and people in the civil service.”

He revealed that his speech on reform, where he proposed better training had been shared with top officials.

“Before I gave the speech that I gave at the weekend, I shared [it] with some permanent secretaries and other civil servants. They didn't agree with everything… but they understood what it is that we were trying to do, and I altered the speech to an extent as a result of the feedback from them, because we want to make sure that it's a collective endeavour.”

 

About the author

Richard Johnstone is deputy and online editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World where this story first appeared. He tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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