We Need Properly Planned Civil Service Reform

by ukcivilservant

For those taking a new interest in Civil Service Reform, and the possible politicisation of the senior civil service, here are some introductory facts and analysis.  Much further detail may be found here.   

First, let’s agree that …

Whitehall is well overdue for reform. 

There hasn‘t been a proper look at the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service since Lord Haldane reported in 1918.  There have been many successful management and efficiency reforms, including under Francis Maude.  Longer ago, ‘Fulton’ and ‘Next Steps’ were very positive developments but they didn’t touch fundamental questions such as these:. 

  • Should Ministers continue to be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government? Instead, there might be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.
  • As part of this, should civil servants be accountable to Parliament for the delivery of major programms such the COVID response, Brexit implementation and Universal credit.  But would this would require officials to be able to refuse to implement Ministers’ decisions if they felt that they were being given unreasonable objectives and/or unreasonable timescales and/or inadequate resources.
  • What is the right balance between cost and service quality – in terms of both the service provided by ‘Whitehall’ to Ministers and the service provided by the wider (and much larger) Civil Service to the public?
  • Are senior officials now spending too much time defending their Ministers, and not enough time speaking truth to power?
  • Is there no way of allowing officials to demonstrate promotability other than by moving from job to job every couple of years?
  • How much freedom should officials have to innovate and respond to local needs?
  • Do we still need a single ‘Civil Service’ as distinct from a number of grouped departmental administrations?
  • Or, looking the other way, do we still need a single Civil Service comprising only 8% of, and quite separate from, the rest of the public service?
  • Is the Cabinet Secretariat (created in 1916) still fit for purpose nearly 100 years later?
  • Have we nothing to learn from overseas administrations?
  • Should Ministers be constrained from operating in contravention of the Cabinet Manual, perhaps by requiring senior officials to ask for a Procedural Direction’ in such circumstances?

Francis Maude’s Reform Program

It’s a great pity that Francis Maude did not allow these questions to be asked when he had the chance in 2012, and so missed a golden opportunity to undertake a thorough reform of Whitehall – despite describing his objectives (to the Public Administration Committee) as “intense change” and a “dramatic change in culture”. “The civil service will inevitably become much smaller, flatter and less hierarchical, as it should do.” But he reckoned that he could achieve such changes without any sort of plan. The Minister and his officials, including Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, said that there was “no blueprint” and proposed to implement the changes “for the first time without a White Paper”. “A lot of this is just common sense – not revolution”.

To their credit, Committee Chair, Bernard Jenkin, and other committee members were openly sceptical. Surely every successful change programme needed to be planned? “Having a plan is an act of leadership.” In response, ex-Accenture and loyal official Ian Watmore declared that he was a change expert, recruited from the private sector, and saw no need for a plan – a statement so ridiculous that it would undoubtedly have led to failure in any appointment or promotion interview whether within the civil service or with his previous employer.

Reporting in 2013 Sir Bernard’s committee said that “The Government has not … identified any fundamental problem with the Civil Service and the Minister, Francis Maude, says he does not believe that fundamental change is necessary. We conclude that “incremental change” will not achieve the change required. Unless change is clearly heralded and given high profile leadership by a united team of ministers and senior officials, it is bound to fail.”

Does the Civil Service Resist Change?

I do not believe that there is any organised resistance to change. None of the so-called reform programs since ‘Haldane’ threaten the fundamental nature of the civil service.

Lord Bancroft offered an interesting take on the question in his 1984 lecture Whitehall and Management: A Retrospect:

“During my time the Service was not always as well managed as it could have been … But it wasn’t the result of a dogged resistance to change; precisely the reverse.

We were a bit too nervous and defensive.  As a result we tended to pick up every management nostrum, normally a few years too late just when it was going out of fashion … We planned, we programmed, we budgeted; we managed by objectives; we analysed programmatically; we policy planned by units.  We mucked about.  What we should have done was to stick solidly to basic principles …

We were stunningly good at reinventing the wheel … We should have devoted more of out efforts to collecting, recording, and disseminating good and bad lessons learned by individual Departments …  But the climate of the times would not have tolerated this prescription.  How woeful a response to the Fulton report it would have seemed .”

It is of course genuinely difficult to manage serious change in any organisation, let alone one so large, complex and federal as the Civil Service.  One major problem is that no-one can be put in charge of a service-wide change program:- The Head of the Civil Service has too much else to do, but none of his Permanent Secretary colleagues are likely to take much notice of anyone else.

The other big problem is that – as every business school will tell you – you cannot change just one element of an organisation at a time. One expert defined ‘the 5 Cs’:- the five fundamental elements of any organisation, none of which can be changed without simultaneously causing change in the others:

  1. Capacity, i.e. resources, and in particular staff numbers;
  2. Capability (or Competence), i.e. staff skills, training, experience and motivation;
  3. Communications, including not only communications whilst the change program is being implemented, but also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented;
  4. Culture, new relationships, attitudes to innovation, reward structures etc.;
  5. Constitution, i.e. organisational structure, reporting lines etc.

The civil service tries its best, and you can see various attempts, over the years, to bring about change in most of the above areas. But the attempts are essentially uncoordinated so that, for instance, Gershon’s drive to refocus effort into the front line happens at the same time as tight pay settlements and a decision that senior civil servants should move even more frequently between jobs. There is no doubt that today’s civil service is better, in many ways, than its predecessors. But it could be so much better still – especially when it comes to policy-making, where it arguably performs less well than in previous generations.

Sir Michael Bichard makes the same point:

“To improve efficiency levels in the service, the government needs to look at how civil servants’ work should be done and how the service as a whole is structured. Different departments develop initiatives in isolation. There have been too many false starts, too many initiatives that don’t come together as a coherent change program. And it is this incoherent approach that leaves civil servants demoralised and confused.”

Three Possible Approaches

Let’s assume that serious reform of the government machine might be necessary. There are, broadly, three possible approaches.

The first approach – the politicisation of the upper reaches of the civil service – would ensure that Ministers are supported by officials who share their political agenda and are energetic in taking it forward.

The British Civil Service is now the only major Civil Service in the developed world to remain wholly unpoliticised in its upper reaches. Others sometimes claim to be, but no longer are. New appointments in these countries do not always clearly follow from party allegiance, but they reflect Ministerial preference and thus personal and political rather than constitutional and institutional loyalty. The Canadian system is probably the nearest to that of the UK, but the Canadian equivalents of British Permanent Secretaries are appointed by their Ministers, although appointments seem to be made on merit and incumbents are often reappointed when Governments change following election defeats. In Australia, the equivalent appointments are clearly political. And in the American system, most of its top three layers change every four or eight years to make way for new Presidential appointments.

But any move in the direction of politicisation meets determined opposition in the UK, and is not helped by the fact that politicians are currently so unpopular. Serious politicisation therefore appears to be a non-starter, for the time being at least. But those interested in this subject might like to read:-

The second approach would be a new constitutional settlement. Ministers would no longer be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government. Instead, there would be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the civil service would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.

The third approach would be more incremental –addressing, one or two at a time, the questions listed at the beginning of this note. 

So What Stops these Reforms from Happening?

The first approach (politicisation) has very few strong supporters. UK politicians seem to need more robust advisers, not more committed political soul mates. Indeed, even the current tiny number of Special Advisers is regarded with considerable suspicion by many commentators.

Ministers, too, sometimes hesitate when they look at overseas administrations where the tendency is for politically aligned appointees to become in effect political figures in their own right, for their views to be known, and for the Ministers’ own accountability to be diluted accordingly.

(Much the same problem can be seen in the media interest in Dominic Cummings and David Frost, including allegations that the former has become the real Prime Minister and that Boris Johnson cannot manage without him.)

The second approach (a new constitutional settlement) has significant support, not least from the Public Accounts Committee and the Liaison Committee, but powerful opposition from the following groups within the Whitehall establishment.

• Opposition politicians want to retain the ability to gain political advantage by criticising Government Ministers rather than unelected officials.
• Government Ministers are unwilling to admit that they are not solely responsible for important decisions.
• MPs want to be able to continue to write to fellow MPs (currently serving as Ministers) about all aspects of a department’s performance. (A small number refuse even to correspond with Agency Chief Executives, for instance about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing decisions.)
• Last, but not least, many senior officials would not like to be publicly accountability for the effectiveness of their departments, knowing that this would open up areas of conflict with their political masters.

The third, incremental, approach suffers from lack of profile. Nobody has the time or energy to investigate the questions listed above, nor the inclination to stir the nest full of hornets that would be devoted to maintaining the status quo. … A pity, really.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government