Shifting the blame

8 March 2011

Bureaucrat bashing is, for many, an attractive and enjoyable blood sport. It is built into the DNA of certain parts of Fleet Street, providing easy targets as the hapless bureaucrats have no real means of defending themselves.

John Reid had a go when he described the Home Office as “not fit for purpose”. Last week the Cabinet Secretary revealed that he had had to write to the Prime Minister asking him to rein in special advisors after personal attacks on a public official. And yesterday the Prime Minister himself was at it with his attacks on the “enemies of enterprise” in government departments and local authorities.

So far, so much fun. But how much fun is it if you’re a civil servant in BIS, UKTI, the regions or wherever who works your socks off helping to support British business, and in particular SMEs, to succeed at home and abroad? Might you not think that, at a time when there is a threat of job losses some support for and understanding of what you do rather than a public hammering might be more appropriate?

The civil service duopoly

What this does is crystallise two perennial issues – who provides leadership for the civil service and how do you best motivate and lead people, particularly though times of major change?

The civil service is, of course, politically neutral. It works for the government of the day, providing a seamless transition across administrations. One of the roles of the Cabinet Secretary, as Head of the Home Civil Service, is to provide leadership and support for all civil servants.

And yet the reality is a duopoly operates. Civil servants in government departments recognise that they are expected to have loyalty for the ministers of the day and that, on a day to day basis, two chains of command operate. This means that inevitably there is a lack of clarity over leadership and if criticisms are to be made of the civil service, who should be making them?

Taking people with you during major organisational change

This is drawn into sharper focus when, as is the case now, the civil service is facing major transformational change with the prospect of job losses. This is a situation that cries out for real leadership to take people on the path the government has set and to motivate them to adjust to and embrace change.

Is this best achieved by sensationalist headlines or by working hard behind the scenes to address perceived shortcomings? That it can be done successfully is demonstrated by the work that is taking place at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in the development and implementation of its transformation agenda, which we have been evaluating.

This began before the last election out of a recognition that the MOJ had to change including to address the gap between public expectations and the services it provided.

When the work started it was underpinned by a clear recognition from the top that change was necessary.  However, the form of that change was not mandated from the top – rather the department sought to engage its best people in ‘middle management’ to devise new strategies.  This approach has certainly generated better plans than could have been produced without such input.  But it has also led to the emergence of a group of directors personally committed to implementing these plans.

What research evidence has shown about organisational change is that working with people and taking them with you including, if necessary, the sensitive delivery of unpalatable messages, can sustain motivation, engagement and commitment. Others may wish to take note.

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Comments (3)

  1. BrianSJ on 8 March 2011 at 5:05 pm

    The Civil Service has its own agenda, values and ways of working. Ministers should be seen as customers not ‘heads’ of departments. The case for Civil Service accountability is indisputable. The case for its role as monopoly supplier needs to be challenged. Citing the hard work of the people at the bottom is the same disingenuous argument used by fat cat managers who say how hard nurses work.

    There was an article today that said that an innovative risk-taking civil servant was an oxymoron. Sorry, there may have been a time when the above was sort-of true. Not any more.

  2. Richard on 8 March 2011 at 6:38 pm

    As a fan of John Reid, can I dispute the comparison of his remarks to David Cameron’s? Reid’s comments came after a series of specific administrative errors which i think everyone agreed left a department that was not fit for the purpose of protecting the public. On the other hand, Cameron was making an unfounded generalisation that public servants are enemies of enterprise. I don’t think the statements can be compared.

  3. [...] In recent weeks, David Cameron has been reported to feel (very much as Tony Blair did) that Whitehall is dragging its feet over reforms. But ministries may very properly be more fussed about means than ends: propriety is their job. Cameron’s response has been to throw out his former insistence that he would work traditionally (presumably with the Cabinet Office and Whitehall) rather than with an official private office teaming with politically-appointed Special Advisers (SPADs). He wants his own Blairish janissaries checking on ministers and departments alike to ensure that Number 10’s strategies are followed. (The Guardian has looked at the issue  and there is useful almost stroppy blog from the Institute for Government’s Zoe Gruhn.) [...]

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