29 November 2013
Last updated at 22:36 ET
Lord Butler gave a frosty response to comments by Francis Maude
The minister responsible for civil service reform, Francis Maude, does not understand leadership, the former head of the service has told the BBC.
Lord Butler of Brockwell said what he called “backstairs sniping” showed contempt for the civil service.
Mr Maude recently said Whitehall should take more responsibility for errors.
A spokesman for Mr Maude said the civil service was full of brilliant people but held back by a hierarchical system and rigid culture.
In a recent newspaper interview Mr Maude suggested civil servants should “speak truth to power” more often.
His sentiments have met with a frosty response from the man who was for a decade cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.
Lord Butler told BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster: “I agree with that, but people are not encouraged to speak truth to power when in the same breath in the same interview they are told that they will be dumped on when things go wrong.
“I’m sorry to say, I really think that Mr Maude and some of his colleagues don’t understand leadership.”
He continued: “My view is that the relationship between ministers and the civil service works best when they work together in a mutually supportive relationship, with loyalty on both sides.
“And backstairs sniping, whichever side it comes from, shows that something is wrong and there’s been too much of that backstairs sniping.”
Lord Butler, who served under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, said there was that sort of criticism of civil servants in the media “almost every single day”.
‘Sweeping under carpet’
BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said there were clear tensions in Whitehall about both changes to the civil service, and controversies in which the most senior civil servants in government departments – permanent secretaries – had been publicly criticised.
Mr Maude’s spokesman said: “The civil service has brilliant people but somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts because of a hierarchical system and a rigid culture.
“It’s not right to patronise and infantilise people by pretending that everything is perfect in the best of all possible worlds.
“Good leadership is not about sweeping problems under the carpet. Francis and the leadership of the civil service have highlighted issues which need to be addressed. The same issues are raised in a survey of 200,000 civil servants.
“We owe it to the taxpayer, users of public services and civil servants themselves to address these issues in an honest and truthful way. That’s just what we are doing”.
“What Francis said was that ‘everybody has to take responsibility for what they were part of’ – that’s axiomatic and the alternative is no responsibility and no accountability.”