Top No. 10 aide slams ‘risk averse’ civil service

Baroness Finn calls for staffing overhaul to tackle ‘lack of capability’ in Whitehall to deliver projects across UK

The street sign for Whitehall
(Image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s new deputy chief of staff has triggered a war of words with the civil service by accusing government officials of lacking the “capability” to deliver projects that benefit all regions of the UK and create the “right enabling environment”.

In a damning assessment, Simone Finn, aka Baroness Finn, has suggested that Whitehall should draft in more expertise from the private sector and recruit from outside of London to help counter the public’s perception of the political system as being “aloof, arrogant, remote and centralised”.

In an article for liberal conservative think-tank Bright Blue that has also been published by The Telegraph, she argues that “we need to address the lack of capability in the Civil Service to deliver successful projects across the UK”.

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The civil service should draw on “all the talents of every part of the UK” and ensure that decision-makers are “acquainted with the challenges faced by those outside the metropolitan bubble”, Finn continues.

If the government wishes to make a success of its “levelling-up” agenda, the civil service “needs to become more open to new ideas and decision making, more commercially aware and less risk averse”.

The criticisms have, predictably, been met with anger from senior civil servants. Dave Penman, general secretary of civil servants’ union the FDA, told Politico’s London Playbook that Whitehall officials were “working their socks off” on the Covid pandemic response.

“If this government is serious about civil service reform, it needs to learn about leadership,” Penman said, adding that “insulting the very people you want to reform - who are already working flat out for a civil service that’s internationally recognised as the best in the world - is entirely self-defeating”.

The renewed tensions between No. 10 and the civil service have dashed hopes that relations could be improved following the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street.

The controversial adviser repeatedly criticised the civil service, calling the concept “an idea for history books” and warning that a “hard rain” would fall on the “incoherent” Cabinet Office had he have stuck around for longer.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.