There have, since 2007, been over 30 think tank reports on government in general and the civil service in particular, and another large number published by various parliamentary committees and the government itself. The latest report, ‘Government Reimagined’, is (I think) the first from Policy Exchange. It is, like so many of its predecessors, well-researched, sensible and full of good ideas.
Inevitably, though, most of the the proposals have already been made time and time again, and often accepted time and time again – and then forgotten or watered down. Cross-departmental regional hubs, anyone? Or greater diversity? What about Ministerial training? Or greater senior official responsibility ‘with commensurate accountability and reward’ – during austerity? And wouldn’t it be a good idea if “civil servants [were to] stay in key jobs for longer so expertise is built and collective memory achieved? Tell that to Permanent Secretaries on fixed term contracts, trying to lead departments in which they have no prior experience.
A large part of the problem is that many of the recommendations raise difficult constitutional questions to which there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. The only people who can answer these questions are politicians themselves, and they repeatedly fail to do so. In particular:
- Do they want to abandon the advantages of Cabinet government (and the possible pleasure of being a proper Cabinet Minister) in order to gain the advantages of centralised command and control?
- Do they want senior officials to be responsible for achieving worthwhile outcomes (and to stride more quickly through ‘the treacle’) if that needs those same officials to make politically unpopular decisions. (As one commentator noted recently, If there were a big red button labelled ‘Improve Environment without Annoying Anyone’ it would have been pressed long ago. )
It is now 14 years since Christopher Hood and Martin Lodge identified Civil Service Reform Syndrome:- “a rash of … attempts to fix up the bureaucracy, with the same pattern of hype from the centre, selective filtering at the extremities and political attention deficit syndrome that works against any follow-through and continuity”. Will the reports published over the next 14 years be taken more seriously by our political leaders?
Editor Understanding the Civil Service