Downing Street betrayed its officials | Bob Kerslake


IIn all of the ‘partygate’ debate and Sue Gray’s investigation, very little has been said about what officials think of the events that took place at No 10. Yet the implications for the public service, from the fall in public confidence to Boris Johnson’s plans to restructure Downing Street, could be serious and long-lasting. After all, the Prime Minister’s term will end at some point, but the government will live.

During my time as head of the national civil service and during a long career of working with civil servants, I found that the overwhelming majority believed in doing the right things in the right way . The institution’s core values ​​- integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – are imbued in every new recruit and are truly lived. This, of course, does not make the public service perfect. It has been criticized, sometimes rightly, for paying too much attention to process, rather than outcome, and not reacting quickly or decisively enough in an emergency. But getting it right really matters.

The police investigation means we only have an update from Gray, not the full report we were expecting. However, even with this limited scope, the image at the heart of government is overwhelming. For public servants who place so much emphasis on good behavior and conduct, this is anathema. It damages their self-esteem – not too long ago we claimed to have the best public service in the world – and, just as important, it damages the public’s perception of the public service. Trust is a precious commodity that takes a long time to build and is quickly lost. There is no doubt that partygate has considerably reinforced the loss of trust between rulers and ruled. Civil servant work has been made much more difficult.

For civil servants working in Whitehall, this also applies to their dealings with ministers. To be effective, public servants must believe in the fundamental integrity of ministers. Their job is to help them implement their policies, regardless of their personal views. But what if this fundamental respect between minister and civil servant is shaken? Or, when the going gets tough, is it left to them to take the blame rather than the ministers to shoulder their responsibilities? Or, when ministers are found to have deviated from the ministerial code, as was clearly the case with Priti Patel, no action will be taken? The most likely conclusion they will come to is that there are better opportunities outside of government, which will rob the government and the country of much-needed talent.

Gray’s update also highlights the need for structural reforms in No. 10. There are undoubtedly good arguments for change. When Downing Street has worked well it has often been in spite of rather than because of the way things are organised. The Prime Minister, in his response to the House of Commons, mentioned the creation of a Prime Minister’s Office with a permanent secretary at No 10, and also to review the code of conduct for the civil service and special advisers. Constitutionalists and former senior civil servants risk accumulating opinions on these proposals. This will add further uncertainty at a time when relations in N0 10 are already strained.

Whatever the merits of shifting structures and codes, however, I fear they distract from the fundamental issues of leadership behavior and culture. In government, even more than in other organizations I’ve worked in, that culture is ultimately established at the top – in this case by the Prime Minister – not the Principal Private Secretary or a special adviser. It may be that the Metropolitan Police report and Gray’s full findings shed more light on who should properly take responsibility. Meanwhile, the public opinion, as shown by numerous opinion polls, is that the rules have been broken and those responsible will not be punished. This is bad news for those who believe in good government and for public servants.

It is also important to remember that most civil servants are based outside of Westminster. They provide public services such as benefit payments, prison management, employment assistance and tax collection. Their response to partygate will be much the same as that of the general public – anger and disbelief when they themselves have made huge sacrifices.

Some politicians have been at pains to dismiss Downing Street parties as irrelevant – that we’re wasting our time talking about prosecco parties when we should be responding to Putin. But there are few things more important to our democracy than believing that those at the top will follow the rules and tell the truth. Public servants especially have good reason to understand this fundamental truth.


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