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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 15:34 GMT
Blair plans to ditch Sir Humphrey
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair wants a revolution in Britain's civil service.

Out will go Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey and his obstructive, stultifying culture.

And in will come Wall Street's Gordon Gekko full of go-getting radicalism and a can do attitude.
Blair is frustrated over delivery

At least, that is the impression many civil servants and others will gain from the prime minister's latest speech on improving the public services.

"We need a civil service which aims to amplify the implementation of successful change rather than, as sometimes in the past, act as a shock absorber in order to maintain the status quo.

"If we want a civil service to be more entrepreneurial, to be more adventurous like their private sector counterparts, we have to loosen up," he said.

Radical stuff

And many civil servants listening to his latest keynote speech will have reasons to feel threatened.

His proposals will see a smaller Whitehall, operating more as a business than a bureaucracy.

Private sector practices will become the norm and there will be an end of jobs-for-life for senior Mandarins.

Paul Eddington with Nigel Hawthorn as Sir Humphrey
Sir Humphrey must go
It was, by any standards, radical stuff and will undoubtedly provoke a mixture of panic, dismay, excitement and enthusiasm in Whitehall.

But there was another, political message lurking not far from the surface of the prime minister's remarks.

And, bluntly, it was that much of the blame for any lack of delivery of his policies has been down to the Sir Humphreys.

Cracked it

The prime minister has regularly expressed his frustration at the slow pace of his own reforms.

And he knows there is the huge danger that, unless voters actually experience that delivery before the next general election, they will take out their anger and disappointment through the ballot box.

So, the other key quote of his speech was: "The principal challenge is to shift focus from policy advice to delivery."

In other words, the current civil service all too often fails to deliver the government's policies.

And the prime minister used the example of the recent foot and mouth crisis, declaring that, despite the best efforts of the civil service, it was the military who cracked it.

"They were allowed to take risks, if something failed they didn't waste time with a committee of inquiry, they tried something else. They had a remorseless focus on delivering the outcome."

This was all part of the prime minister's determination to get back onto the domestic agenda and, in particular, focus on his planned reforms of the public services.

Whether voters will accept his diagnosis remains to be seen.

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