Ian Watmore's departure - a personal view
Is Ian Watmore's departure the end of an era
Published 13:43, 17 May 12
For me Watmore's time in the civil service has been marked by openness, honesty and a lack of ego. Many times he has been before Parliamentary committees and, unlike some permanent secretaries, he answers questions without evasion or an unctuous cleverness.
Knighthoods usually go to senior civil servants, especially those who vigorously defend their departments from criticism by MPs. At no point has Watmore appeared to be angling for a gong. Far from it. His peers oppose the publication of Gateway reviews which are independent assessments of large IT and construction projects. Watmore favours publication. With Watmore's agreement a Starting Gate review on Universal Credit was made available in the House of Commons' library.
I am not so sure you can blame Watmore for what goes wrong in government even when it’s, to a limited extent, within his purview. He is a big cog in the government machine but he cannot tell departments what to do. It’s unfair to criticise him for what is not happening.
No civil servant in the Cabinet Office, however senior, can do much. Only the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, with the backing of Cameron, has the power to effect real change and Watmore has been there to say what change is possible and what is not.
Whoever takes his job will be criticised by the minister for going too slowly and not being radical enough, and by departments for being too hurried and dictatorial.
A possible criticism of Watmore is that he has been too cautious, in the belief that the IT and other machinery of government generally works well. I disagree. The NAO has qualified the accounts of large departments and exposed serious incompetence within the civil service.
Yes, tax discs are available online but that’s the exception. To some observers government administration is characterised by fraud, error, waste and long waits on the phone for the public. Those who advise caution in reforms of the civil service are missing the point. Things don’t run well at the moment. The benefits of genuine innovation - of taking a chance - are potentially huge. It’s worth taking sensible risks.
Perhaps a criticism of the past is that those risks have been regarded as too great, which has protected the status quo, stifled innovation, kept SMEs at bay, and allowed the big IT suppliers to remain dominant in government.
Francis Maude wants radical reform, understandably. The banks and credit card companies handle more transactions every day than central government - and with far fewer staff and much less complexity. Central government, even with the savings made by Watmore and his colleagues, is still bloated and inefficient. Though some things are improving, the DWP, for example, is still awarding old-style big contracts to the major IT suppliers.
The risks of innovating - of disrupting the machinery of government - can be managed. Leave things as they are and you keep high costs and continuous failure. Things don't run as well as some within imagine. It's time for radical change.