In Depth

‘Hard rain’s gonna fall’: what are Dominic Cummings’ plans to reform the civil service?

War on Whitehall begins as PM’s closest adviser moves his team into Cabinet Office

Dominic Cummings has launched his long-awaited Whitehall reshuffle, relocating 10 Downing Street’s top team to a new “control centre” in the Cabinet Office’s current home at 70 Whitehall.

According to a “senior government source”, Boris Johnson’s right-hand man and around 20 other political officials including Downing Street policy unit director Munira Mirza will be based in the new open-plan office in the neighbouring building, the i news site reports. 

The move comes days after Johnson ally Simon Case was appointed head of the civil service and appears to be the first drop in Cummings’ promised “hard rain” for the “incoherent” Cabinet Office. So what else does he have planned?

What’s his issue with Whitehall?

Cummings has long been an outspoken critic of the civil service, calling the concept “an idea for history books” and proposing the abolition of the role of permanent secretaries.

The senior adviser has also claimed in the past that the Cabinet Office, which serves as the corporate headquarters of the civil service, is “often used to limit the autonomy of individual ministers and impose the will of senior mandarins”, the i says. 

Last year, he “proposed a major overhaul” of the system, with experts “operating next to, and in some senses above, the Cabinet Office”, the news site adds.

Civil servants have been warned that the proposed reforms are designed to “drive culture change”, reports The Times. In January, Cummings offered a hint of what was to come when when he called for “super-talented weirdos” to apply to work at 10 Downing Street. 

“What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity,” the job post said.

So what exactly are his plans?

The shifting of policy advisers out of Downing Street and into the Cabinet Office appears to be the first major offensive in what commentators are describing as the “war” on the Whitehall being spearheaded by Cummings and Johnson.

The new workspace has been described by the Cabinet Office as a “collaboration hub”, but The Times claims the move will “in effect create a de facto ‘Department for the Prime Minister’ at the heart of Whitehall, with officials working under far closer political direction than ever before”.

The door that currently connects 70 Whitehall to 10 Downing Street is also “being removed in a symbolic move that unites the two office complexes”, adds the i site.

Cummings’s machinations have already forced the hands of a number of senior civil servants, with five major departures this year alone.

Mark Sedwill announced in June that he was stepping down as cabinet secretary, amid reports of clashes with Cummings. And Jonathan Slater was removed from the post of permanent secretary at the Department of Education last week, following the controversy surrounding this year’s A-levels and GCSEs.

A further three permanent secretaries have also resigned in recent months: the Home Office’s Philip Rutnam, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Simon McDonald and Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice.

What do critics say?

Concerns have been raised over the hastiness and perceived brutality of the shake-up, along with fears that Cummings is attempting to politicise the civil service.

Some critics have suggested that Cummings is leading a “rapid, and dangerous, politicisation of the traditionally independent and non-partisan administrative machine”, reports The Independent’s associate editor Sean O’Grady. 

And in article in The Guardian last month, an anonymous civil servant wrote that the reforms represent “a threat to democracy itself”.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has also spoken out against the war on the Cabinet Office, claiming that the PM is “clearly ready to grant Cummings his every wish when it comes to politicising the civil service and sweeping out those who may try to hold his government to account”.

Meanwhile, the general secretary of the FDA trade union, which represents senior civil servants, has warned that Johnson’s allies are exhibiting a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the modern civil service.

 “If it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability,” FDA boss Dave Penman continued.

“After this government’s continuous anonymous briefings to the press, trust between ministers and civil servants is already at an all-time low and this will only damage it further.”

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