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