Guest blog: Why ministers should listen to those who know how

15 June 2012

Prospect, the union for professionals, managers and specialists, agrees with many of the points in the IfG’s ‘Seven crucial tests for the new reform plan’.

The IfG has posed the over-arching question of what the Civil Service is for and talks about the importance of positive reasons to change beyond the immediate pressures of cost savings.

This is quite right in principle, but in practice, the experience of our 34,000 members in the Civil Service and its agencies over the past two years is all about cutting costs and headcount and not at all about a ‘new reform plan’.

Despite all the mistakes made in the so-called cull of quangos, ‘Open Services 2012’ demonstrates little new thinking or lessons learned since publication of the original Open Services white paper. We have yet to see what will be in the new reform plan, though publication is expected imminently.

‘Seven crucial tests’ also identifies the need for operational improvements, including the need for better management information. It highlights the importance of moving effective policy design beyond the confines of the so-called ‘policy profession’.

While it is possible to over-measure and over-prescribe processes and functions that depend fundamentally on specialist expertise and human interaction, the Civil Service lacks key data to plan and assess service provision – and in this respect lags way behind best private sector practice.

For example, when asked by Prospect late last year, neither Civil Service Learning nor the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could provide information on the numbers or functions of apprentices working for government. In our view, central government should maintain a database to provide easy access to expertise in specific disciplines and facilitate workforce planning and development.

It is noticeable that every government reference to specialists focuses either on policy or on programme/contract management. Yet these are actually narrow subsets of the skills needed by the government to discharge its responsibilities, including actingas an intelligent customer. What about the role of scientists and engineers, experts who work in defence, meteorology, vehicle testing, cartography, prison management, nuclear regulation or veterinary science, to name just a few?

‘Seven crucial tests’ notes that the second lowest rating in the Civil Service People Survey was for ‘leadership and managing change’, seen as a proxy for employee engagement.

Prospect’s own report, ‘Government that can needs people who know how’, notes the importance for successful change both of strategic vision and listening to the people who know how to deliver.

But the IfG’s plea to ‘encourage and accept open debate’ is a world apart from the daily experiences of many civil servants, which may more closely resemble management by ministerial diktat. Prospect is aware of many individuals with key skills choosing to leave the civil service rather than continue to work under current constraints.

We agree with the IfG on the need for a more mature relationship with arms’ length bodies. Trading funds, for example, are expected to operate to commercial disciplines but do not have the freedom either to reward staff for their success or to recruit the skilled staff they need at appropriate rates of pay. A number of these organisations employ world-class specialists and loss of their expertise will impact directly on future organisational capability.

However, Prospect fundamentally disputes any implication that services and advice are always better provided outside the Civil Service. This has recently been graphically illustrated by the practices of the companies A4E and Close Protection UK. Ethics and accountability are important, and governments should not shy away from the fact that there are many (though not all) services that only the public sector can, or will, provide.

The assumption that there are always more savings to be made is fundamentally at odds with a positive strategy for reforming public services. Prospect does not take an ideological approach on this issue and fully appreciates the need to spend public money judiciously and effectively.

But in a party-political context such an approach is easily conflated into a blunt dogma of cost-cutting. The reality is that high quality services and a positive programme of reform can only be built on enhanced professionalism and better co-ordination across government.

The government would do well to remember this when it does finally publish its own plans for reform.

Further information

Sue Ferns, is head of research at Prospect union

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