The comments by newly-appointed Downing Street deputy chief of staff Simone Finn prompted an angry backlash from public service unions, who said civil servants had been “working their socks off” during the Covid pandemic.
And asked whether the prime minister backed his aide’s comments, a Downing Street spokesman made a point of highlighting Mr Johnson’s “huge admiration” of the work of the civil service and pride in their “amazing” response to coronavirus.
Baroness Finn, a close ally of Michael Gove and friend of Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds, was appointed to a senior role in No 10 earlier this month as part of the ongoing shake-up which has seen the replacement of Vote Leave veterans in the wake of the resignation of Dominic Cummings.
In an article for the Bright Blue thinktank, she indicated that she will push for reform of Whitehall in her new position.
“In the Brexit referendum of 2016, overlooked families and undervalued communities expressed their discontent with a political system they regarded as aloof, arrogant, remote, and centralised,” wrote Lady Finn.
“A key part that the civil service can play in drawing together a renewed sense of common purpose is making sure that it draws on all the talents of every part of the UK, and ensuring that decision-makers are acquainted with the challenges faced by those outside the metropolitan bubble.”
Lady Finn said the civil service “needs to become more open to new ideas and decision making, more commercially aware, and less risk averse”.
And she said that as well as relocating jobs outside London, civil service leaders need to “think harder about cognitive diversity” and be more inclusive of different voices and life experiences.
“This means breaking up the current career ladder, welcoming people into the service not just for secondments but for periods of two years or more,” she said.
The leader of the FDA union for senior civil servants, Dave Penman, said that officials have been “working their socks off” during the pandemic response.
He said: ‘If this government is serious about civil service reform, it needs to learn about leadership: Insulting the very people you want to reform — who are already working flat out for a civil service that’s internationally recognised as the best in the world — is entirely self-defeating.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson agreed with Lady Finn’s comments, the Downing Street spokesman said: “The PM has huge admiration for the civil service and is immensely proud of the amazing job they have done throughout the pandemic.
“The civil service is always seeking to improve and the reforms we’ve already set out are part of our ongoing effort to deliver the best for the people of the UK.
“A new programme to transform government is already under way. This is a shared priority for both ministers and civil servants.”
He pointed to the recent decision to move Ministry of Housing roles to Wolverhampton as part of an “ambitious” effort to relocate civil service jobs outside London.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said: “All successful organisations are in a process of constant change and improvement and we have been very clear that we want to engage with the government on civil service reform, for example with relation to STEM skills.”
But he added: “We have been frustrated that calls for reform have been used as a slogan, devoid of real policy content, and that bashing hard-working civil servants is often used as a smokescreen to distract from the failings of ministers.
“The reality is that the civil service has delivered magnificently during the pandemic and helped navigate through the challenges of Brexit whilst politicians were in chaos.”