Democracy will be damaged unless the civil service shapes up for the modern age, David Blunkett has told MPs.
Mr Blunkett voiced his frustration about parts of the civil service
The former home secretary said he had worked with excellent civil servants but had also said the structures did not live up to public expectations.
He and ex-Tory home secretary Michael Howard were being questioned by the Commons public administration committee after the recent Home Office crises.
New Home Secretary John Reid says the department is "unfit for purpose".
Mr Blunkett said he understood what Mr Reid meant, although he did not like the phrase.
The former home secretary said fundamental changes had to be made in the next five years.
The civil service did not match the modernisation and reform seen in the private sector and had not taken enough account of new technology and globalisation, he said.
"Unless the civil service are able to do that in underpinning some of the delivery, often at arms length and with clear lines of accountability, we will have this drip, drip corrosion of the confidence in what it is that government at any level does to the point where democracy is damaged," he said.
"People cease to vote, they cease to be engaged, the media is full of the worst possible stories about 'our service does not work' and experience then is coloured by the culture around them."
'Not rocket science'
Looking back on his time as home secretary, Mr Blunkett said he wished he had set up a monitoring unit within the department to check that objectives he had set were being delivered.
But he also said the Home Office, of all departments, had the biggest problems to deal with in government.
There were "saints" in the Immigration and Nationality Department, as well as people who would rather not be there, he said.
Mr Howard said getting the best out of the civil service was not "rocket science".
Ministers had to show strong political leadership, be clear about what they wanted and monitor that it was being done.
"If you do that the civil service will respond and will give you what you want," said the former Tory leader.
But pointing at Tony Blair's government, he said civil servants would concentrate on providing "eye catching initiatives" and grabbing headlines, if that was ministers' priority.
That would come at the expense of the "grind of government", he warned.