Civil service reform: meltdown or business as usual?

31 May 2012

Amidst a flurry of stories of rows, resignations and recriminations, the civil service reform plan is due to be published soon. Journalists and select committees have shown great interest in florid accounts of who shouted at whom and why senior officials resigned.

Veterans of relations between Number 10, the Cabinet Office, advisers and ministers would find nothing new in the noisy process of producing the plan. Sir Jeremy Heywood was characteristically sanguine at the Public Accounts Committee recently as he acknowledged the ‘frustration’ experienced by those trying to drive change in the Civil Service.

Rather than be distracted by the noise it is more instructive to look at past civil service reforms and what they tell us the ingredients of successful reform.

We have just published our latest case study on notable reforms in the Civil Service ‘Reforming the Civil Service: The Efficiency Unit in the early 1980’s and the 1987 Next Steps Report’. Two of its insights are striking.

1. The right kind of political leadership

It’s an unusual minister who is interested in the inevitably managerial mechanics of Civil Service Reform. Yet the right sort of political leadership is essential to successful reforms. The case study shows that Thatcher provided clear direction. She wanted to tackle waste and inefficiency. That desire led to the creation of the Rayner Scrutinies and later the major reform of Next Steps Agencies. She was initially sceptical of the approach developed by Derek Rayner but once persuaded gave the programme her sustained backing.

This chimes with more recent reforms designed to tackle delivery concerns in the second Blair government. Blair was frustrated by slow progress on his top priorities and gave Michael Barber an ‘instruction to deliver’. But he trusted Barber and Jeremy Heywood (his then principle private secretary) to develop the ideas and approach. Despite his lack of interest in the mechanics of performance management he acted on their advice and devoted significant time to the crucial delivery stocktakes.

So each set the general direction for reform, trusted their senior officials and advisers to develop the ideas. They became increasingly persuaded of the value of the reform ideas and actions – lending their personal authority to those leading the change. They did not micromanage the development of the ideas and actions for the reforms or their implementation. But they both provided that support over the long term.

2. Getting civil servants on board

The fate of reform plans created solely by the Cabinet Office for the Cabinet Office is miserable. If reforms do not seem relevant to the most pressing concerns and challenges facing civil servants in their home departments they will get little support and have less impact. Many previous civil service reforms have not touched the sides in most departments.

The authors of the Next Steps Report sought out the views and ideas of civil servants across the country. This was driven by their reflection that previous reviews failed to listen the views of civil servants themselves. This meant their story was recognizable to the civil service.

The more reforms are seen to be led by credible leaders from across the Civil Service, the more likely they are to have traction. For example a key step in the progress of Next Steps implementation was to enlist a previously sceptical senior ‘treasury lifer’ as the full time project leader, and empower him. The Rayner Scrutinies were carried out by teams of young staff from across the Civil Service.

The Prime Minister, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob should take three lessons from these 1980’s reforms:

• The right kind of political leadership is crucial, but takes the form of clear direction, and trusting the officials you have asked to develop the ideas and actions for reform
• You need to go with the grain of the Civil Service and connect your reforms to issues that really matter to departments and fix problems they think matter, even while being ambitious in your aims
• Reforms need to be seen to be led by credible people from across the Civil Service – not a small elite buried in the Cabinet Office.

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Comments (2)

  1. David Walker on 31 May 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Intrigued by ‘right kind of political leadership’:
    a) tautologous, cos you only recognise it after the event?
    b) Thatcher’s interest was evanescent, flourished for a time then she went on other things (and lost office)
    c) 80s reforms were not bound up with cuts, they had a ‘culture’ separate from savings, despite the efforts of some to link
    d) do you really think Cameron can suddenly find the time/energy/interest or devolve leadership to FMaude or another
    e) credible people across the CS see c) there’s no way reforms can be separated, now, from cuts
    all the best

  2. Antony on 19 June 2012 at 4:15 pm

    See my response to the civil service reform plans on my blog at http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/reform-of-the-civil-service-todays-white-paper/

    Also worth noting the “Modernising Government” plan from the very late 1990s at http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm43/4310/4310-00.htm to look back at how successful that was.

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