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Monday 06 January 2020

Prime Minister’s aides “don’t fully understand” the modern civil service

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FDA General Secretary Dave Penman has warned Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser, against “surrounding himself with like-minded individuals” after advertising for government jobs on his personal blog.

The 3,000-word blog called for “wild cards”, “misfits” and “super talented weirdos” to apply to work with him in government by emailing a personal Gmail account, and took aim at what he perceived as a lack of “cognitive diversity” in Whitehall.

Penman described Cummings’s attempt to bring people in who think differently as a “laudable aim” but questioned the rhetoric of his blog for painting “a stereotype of civil servants from 30/40 years ago”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Penman told Nick Robinson that Dominic Cummings’s stereotypes of civil servants don’t “actually reflect the reality of a modern civil service”. He also expressed concerns that Cummings’s approach could undermine the ability of the civil service to speak truth to power.

He added: "The civil service is recruited on merit. It’s a really fundamental principle. You’re employed for what you can do rather than what you believe.  That means that you are free to give the best advice to a minister or a Prime Minister because your job is not reliant on them. You can give impartial, professional advice and the Prime Minister cannot effectively sack you.

“If you surround yourself with people who are recruited simply because they believe what you believe and whose employment is at your behest, is that the best way for the civil service or advisers to speak truth unto power? I don’t think it is and I think some of those approaches are quite dangerous as well.”

Penman echoed these concerns in a live appearance on BBC News, in which he explained that you need to “put a lot of effort” into recruiting a diverse workforce, not simply say “you look and think like me, you’re hired”.

The FDA General Secretary also urged Cummings to acknowledge that the civil service is “doing a pretty good job already”, telling Sky News that “you don’t want to throw away what’s good about the civil service” while you’re “striving to identify what you want for the future”.

The union has also asked for clarity on the nature of the jobs advertised and the recruitment process, with Penman telling the Telegraph’s Anna Mikhailova: “This approach from Dominic Cummings raises a lot of questions. Are these permanent civil service roles? Are they special advisers? Are they only expected to serve this government or is there an expectation they will continue to support future governments?
“His complete lack of clarity is extremely unhelpful and opens up a myriad of issues. At this stage there is no transparency over how the recruitment process will be conducted or who will be conducting it.”
“These questions need urgent answers if the Prime Minister's most special of advisers is actually serious about improving public services across the UK.”

Cummings’s blog followed an article on the Telegraph from Rachel Wolf, which claimed the civil service was “woefully unprepared” for Dominic Cummings’s true plans.

Penman dismissed Wolf’s claims, warning that the Prime Minister’s aides “don’t fully understand the modern realities of the civil service or, indeed, the impact of a decade of pay stagnation”.

He said: “While painting the civil service as resistant to change might make a good headline, the reality is quite different and the idea that civil servants are rising ‘to their position of incompetence’ is so wide of the mark it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of the modern civil service.

“All senior civil service roles are externally advertised and appointed on merit. The so-called ‘merry-go-round’ that Wolf decries is entirely of the Government’s own creation, with a decade of pay stagnation and the removal of pay progression leaving the movement between jobs as the only route to a pay rise.

“If the Prime Minister really does want to deliver 50 million new GP appointments, new train lines, or better bus services, we need to see a much clearer plan on how these reforms will lead to the transformation promised. Otherwise, we could be left with just another round of reform for reform’s sake.”

On Thursday 2 January, Penman’s comments were covered in the Scotsman, the Independent, Politics Home, Civil Service World, the Belfast Telegraph, Mail Online, BBC News, the Metro, the Daily Record, the Financial Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian.

On Friday 3 January, Penman appeared on Sky News, BBC News Afternoon Live, Channel 5 News and Channel 4 News as well as BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, BBC Radio London, LBC News and BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. His comments were also covered by Politics Home, BBC News Reality Check, Politico, the Express, the Evening Standard, the Telegraph, the Times, the Mirror, the National and the New European.

The FDA also received further coverage in the Timesthe Observer and Global Government Forum

Penman also gave an interview to Global Government Forum, where he explained "one of the reasons why a permanent, impartial civil service works is because officials have the ability to ‘speak truth unto power’, and can do so without fear or favour because ministers do not control their employment.”

“If you change that," he continued,  "you change something pretty fundamental."

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