Guest blog — Civil service reform: breaking out of ‘the doom loop’

16 March 2012

As Bob Kerslake is in the early stages of formulating his views on what civil service transformation looks like, I want to offer a view of what it should not look like.

The Cabinet Office default approach to reform is as follows: White Papers, a Cabinet Office DG, reform strands led by permanent secretaries, action plans for departments, units to monitor departmental progress, annual reports on progress.

Like medieval Italian warfare, all these things will be beautifully paraded, but when the final trumpets have sounded, everyone will go home — no bloodshed, no conquests — and life will go on as before. Change programmes of this kind are so ‘nineties’. More importantly they don’t work.

I wonder if civil service-wide reform is a mirage. There is really excellent work going on in departments, led by excellent permanent secretaries. Look at the Foreign Office for example, traditionally an unlikely suspect to be in the vanguard of reform. Look at the collective good stories across Whitehall — the Olympics, security, the arts, renewable energy — here is the real story of civil service transformation.

Jim Collins, change leadership guru argues that good-to-great corporate transformations were not explained by some miracle moment: “Instead, a down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process — a framework — kept each company, its leaders, and its people on track for the long haul.”

He describes the successful corporate transformations using the analogy of a large flywheel — picture a huge metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle weighing 25 tons.

“To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing…at last the flywheel makes a second rotation…with each turn, it moves faster, and then at some point…you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favour…you aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.”

Collins contrasts this with the ‘doom loop’ of unsuccessful change:

“…they launch change programs with huge fanfare, hoping to “enlist the troops.” They start down one path, only to change direction. After years of lurching back and forth, these companies discover that they’ve failed to build any sustained momentum. Instead of turning the flywheel, they’ve fallen into a ‘doom loop’: Disappointing results lead to reaction without understanding, which leads to a new direction — a new leader, a new program — which leads to no momentum, which leads to disappointing results. It’s a steady, downward spiral…a ‘doom loop’ drains the spirit right out of a company.

I went to the Institute for Government last week to hear the star cast of new Cabinet Secretary and Head of Civil Service and Francis Maude.

Was I the only one to come away feeling a little disappointed? I expected a rather more transformational set of ideas.

The open letter hits many of the issues that do need to be addressed.  It does so convincingly. The Institute was careful to caveat its elegant document as a pulling together of its research.  But the resulting agenda is not sufficient to generate wide-scale reform or transformation:

•    It is a ‘heads’ not hearts agenda.
•    It does not contain the stuff from which inspiration flows
•    It lacks a big ‘organising idea’
•    It is not strong enough on the critical political side of the equation.
•    It is too tame on civil service accountability.

Whatever the Centre does it has to turn that fly wheel more, not create its own agenda.

So the optimist in me is holding onto three hopes:

1.    that there are some more radical thoughts to be had in the IfG’s research programme which is to follow on from their open letter. Could we really see some breakthrough thinking in the blocked area of civil service and ministerial accountability?
2.    that Bob Kerslake can break from centralist reform orthodoxy and ask what really is needed to enable and encourage all departments  – in their full array of different functions and roles – to pursue agendas which will deliver better services and better government for much less money.  Start from what has to be done to achieve this, not what has to be done to create a civil service transformation programme.
3.    that their reform plan when published will signal the start of a long steady push to move and accelerate the flywheel of lasting civil service reform.   No quick fixes or hopes pinned on one idea – for example Francis Maude’s faith in non executives – who are potentially useful, but not in their own right transformational.

But history suggests a very powerful pull to the Cabinet Office ‘doom loop’ of reform.

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Comments (3)

  1. Chris Davies on 16 March 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Interesting post Andrew. I for one am somewhat reassured by the lack of a big organising idea: that sort of approach can have a crippling effect on organisations that face genuinely complex challenges, like the civil service. Sticking to a big idea in the face of a dynamically changing world is not the solution here. (Nor for that matter is sticking to some of Collins’ other notions, as Phil Rosenzweig has pointed out!)

    But you are right to point out that Civil Service reform should involve something other than the old approach to change. If it is going to result in a civil service fit for today it needs genuinely to release staff across the network to create and innovate. That has numerous implications, but there are two worth highlighting. The first is recognising the role that failure plays in learning and improvement. There’s no doubt that the issues for the public sector are often more serious than for others (a failed health policy resulting in deaths is a damn sight worse than a failed IT product strategy), but it is plenty possible to create mechanisms that enable new ideas to be tried out without causing catastrophe.

    The second issue is indeed all about accountability, as you highlight. The licence to lead needs to be distributed across the civil service, and accountability needs to move from being about punishment for failure (although even that is pretty soft) to censure for failing to try. We are unlikely to have a truly entrepreneurial civil service, mainly because there aren’t that many entrepreneurs floating around, but we can encourage people to try out new things rather than just be a safe pair of hands!

  2. Phillip Ward on 16 March 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I too was underwhelmed by the thoughts of Messrs Maude, Heywood and Kerslake. Starting with the notion of “Civil Service Reform” is almost bound to lead into centralist thinking. Talk of Reform suggests the need to change a moribund system and general prescriptions about required skill sets tends to play to the traditional idea of a civil service generalist. In my view there is not a single civil service, but an array of civil service organisations with different, if overlapping, skill requirements all of which have changed significantly since the Yes Minister archetype was embedded in popular consciousness.

    Look at this as a continuous improvement process and what is needed is leadership – not from the centre – but within individual business units – focussed on the needs of that business unit. The role of the Centre should be to make sure that people know where they are supposed to be going not how they should get there. Preferably it should be a destination that does not change too often – the fly wheel analogy is spot on there.

  3. David Laughrin on 3 April 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Good to see that Andrew has got an interesting debate going, and the two posts from Chris Davies and Phillip Ward seem very cogent to me. My civil service career saw lots of allegedly transformational reforms launched, but little capacity to stick with ideas long enough to ensure that flywheel momentum got going. I also very much agree that the civil service is an industry with lots of rather different businesses within it and one big idea is unlikely to be right for all. I came to the conclusion over my career that “transformation” is only rarely a helpful answer and all too often it is the slogan of the quack-doctor. The patient slog of techniques like “appreciative inquiry” – putting energy behind “what works around here” to bring about a continuous improvement escalator – is much more likely to lead to successful outcomes. I suspect Andrew already knows the truth of this from his long years of engaging with central reform initiatives and taking cover when the reform agenda moved on to something else!

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