Civil Service Reform – Lord Maude Tries Again

by ukcivilservant

There was an interesting report in the FT this morning that Lord (Francis) Maude is being lined up to lead a review into ‘how the civil operates as the government embarks on a controversial plan to shrink and reform Whitehall’.   This may be good news if – but only if – Lord Maude has learned from the failure of his first two reform programs.

His first program began in 2010 driven by an ambition to reduce civil service numbers from around 481,000 to around 375,000 over 5 years.  Lord Maude and his supporting officials said that they were seeking “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 there appeared to be no attempt to learn from previous failed attempts at civil service reform.

Even worse, there was no implementation plan, which must have been highly embarrassing for Chief Operating Officer (and ex-Accenture) Ian Watmore who was forced to tell a Parliamentary committee that he 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.  (This was perhaps one of the early examples of the increasing reluctance of senior officials to speak truth to power – or to Parliament.)   

Lord Maude tried again in 2012 but this time he did publish a Civil Service Reform Plan which:

  • suggested far reaching changes in the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and senior officials, and
  • announced some sensible plans which – if implemented – would significantly improve the effectiveness of the present civil service machine.

So What Happened?

In brief:

  • Civil service numbers fell to 384,000 by 2016 but rebounded (in part because of Brexit) to 475,000 by 2021.
  • There have been a small number of interesting examples of improved relationships between officials and Ministers but …
  • the abolition of the National School for Government and changes to the Fast Stream do not seem to have been successes and …
  • it would be a brave commentator who argued that the government in general or the civil service in particular had performed at all well over recent years.

These failures were implicitly acknowledged by the need for McKinseys to be asked in May 2020 to help prepare ‘a reform prospectus document’, followed by Ministers’ June 2021 ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ and (now) the third Lord Maude initiative.

Why Did Maude Fail?

The civil service is part of a complex government system.  Rather like this apparently simple child’s toy, you can’t move (change) one part of the system without distorting and putting pressure on other elements.  Unless you carefully plan your change program – and are willing to look at all the key relationships in the system – your isolated improvements will disappear.  But there hasn‘t been a system-wide look at the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service since Lord Haldane reported in 1918.

Put another way, it can be useful to consider ‘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.

It follows, for instance, that a successful staff reduction program is likely to involve employing smaller numbers of better trained and better paid staff who are given greater responsibility. Ministers seldom agree to do this.

What Needs to Change?

There have been innumerable ‘civil service reform’ reports all of which reached similar conclusions.  They point to the following weaknesses in UK government performance:

  • Poor pre-legislative consultation.
  • Weak parliamentary oversight including weak scrutiny of legislation.
  • Ineffective checks and balances within the executive (including the Cabinet) which allow mistakes to be made and encourage groupthink.
  • Political hyperactivism – when politicians individually and collectively gain ‘points’ from making new initiatives almost for their own sakes.
  • Whitehall arrogance, including serious weaknesses in the senior civil service.
  • High turnover of both ministers and senior officials.
  • A culture of haste and determination to ‘deliver’.
  • Over-willingness to recreate policies and organisations rather than seek continuous improvement …
  • all exacerbated by failure to learn from past mistakes.

In short:

  • “successive UK governments have attempted to do too much, far too quickly and without paying sufficient attention to the ‘do-ability’ of their policies”.

It follows that these are some of the questions that a serious review of the civil service within the wider government machine might consider:

  • 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 civil service would be responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.
  • As part of this, should civil servants be clearly accountable to Parliament for the delivery of major programs 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?

I will be very surprised if Lord Maude looks at many (if any) of these questions, so it follows that I will not be at all surprised if the next reform program fails to reduce the intensity of complaints about our civil service

If you find this subject interesting then much further detail may be found here.  

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding the Civil Service
Author – How to be a Civil Servant, Speaking Truth to Power and Civil Servants, Ministers and Parliament.