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Ofsted chief slams Whitehall culture

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By Mike Thatcher

13 November 2009

The chair of Ofsted has launched a stinging attack on civil service governance, culture and practices, suggesting that Whitehall is risk averse and unable to deal with failure.

Zenna Atkins claimed that there was an unwritten civil service code. ‘[There is a] behaviour of niceness – it is more important that you have signed your letter correctly than the content of your letter. That is utterly crippling,’ she said.

‘There is absolutely no sense of who the customer is. We are obsessed with inputs, structures, organisations and systems, not outcomes and not on customers.’

Atkins, who is a social entrepreneur and also chairs the Places for People housing group, was addressing a conference organised by the Reform think-tank – ‘A new government agenda’ – on November 10.

She stressed that she was speaking in a personal capacity, but gave examples of the problems she had encountered since becoming Ofsted chair in 2006. ‘I made the mistake quite early on by asking what Ofsted’s view was on school homework. It took seven people four weeks to get me an answer that was impenetrable,’ she said.

Atkins also claimed that civil service boards and audit committees were ‘a joke’ and that performance management was based on a philosophy of ‘what is least likely to see me in court’.

She added: ‘The public service has no ability to deal with failure. It colludes with it and covers it up. It should expose failure and deal with it decisively.’

Speaking later at the conference, Oliver Letwin, the chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Review, was more complimentary about the Whitehall way of working.

 ‘I think that the attacks on the civil service and its culture are not wholly, but largely, misconceived. In my experience, civil servants are more than willing to do what the ministers of the day ask them to,’ he told delegates.

Reform, a free market think-tank, has previously been critical of Whitehall culture. In a report earlier this year, it described senior civil servants as ‘an unaccountable group, all but immune to scrutiny’.