Civil Service Reform: learning from failure

31 July 2012

A constant in successive grand plans for Civil Service Reform since Northcote Trevelyan in 1854 is the desire to improve the skills and capability of civil servants. The recently published plan from Sir Bob and Sir Jeremy is no exception. But if they want to avoid the often miserable impact of previous reforms they should act on four sobering lessons from a previous reform programme: the ambitious launch and rapid decline of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies [CMPS], 1999-2005.

This latest case study in our Reforming the Civil Service series should be required reading for the civil servants charged with shaping and implementing various parts of the new Civil Service Reform Plan.

The CMPS aimed to be both “a hub for thinking in Whitehall and a body overseeing and providing direction to civil service learning and development”. The Institute for Government’s civil service historian Dr Catherine Haddon found “a palpable sense of failure” when she talked to those involved in this attempted reform. It was created as the result of a number of different pressures for change – and in trying to solve a range of problems, for different audiences it was “pulled in multiple directions”. Her report card on the reform is grim:

“It was trying to be all things to all men, but never quite managed to achieve any of them satisfactorily. It did not provide the support and intellectual push that No 10 wanted. It didn’t engage with departments as well as it would have wished, and didn’t resolve a number of longer term problems about the model for civil service training… by 2002 the writing appeared to be on the wall and many in and around no 10 and Whitehall had gone on to focus on other reform initiatives and to create other bodies.”

So what should today’s reformers take from this sad story?

Lesson 1: Be clear what the reform is for. “A big issue was in failing to really develop a shared vision of what CMPS was meant to do… CMPS was supposed to be a huge splash, gritty and modern… [but] the mandate of CMPS was confused from an early stage… there was no explanation to the rest of Whitehall about the intention and remit of the CMPS was… in a short period of time people started criticising and wondering ‘what is this for?…”

Lesson 2: Stick with the reform and invest the resources needed for success. Don’t immediately undermine your initiative by turning your attention elsewhere and setting up new units whose remit cuts across the one you set up months earlier – “the story of CMPS was a typical Downing Street process for dealing with a perceived problem: rebadged an institution then launch, then think that’s it (job done) then lose interest, fail to resource it thoroughly with no proper governance.”

Lesson 3: Create political support and backing. Attention turned elsewhere largely because it lacked the protection of “strong political and crucially, prime ministerial support: it was not on their radar.”

Lesson 4: Use credible leaders who can engage the Civil Service. An outsider was appointed as the Director of CMPS bringing his own vision and energy to what the CMPS could be. But as an outsider to the undeniably chaotic and ill-disciplined world of the multiple battling courts that inevitably grow in the Cabinet Office and No 10 he “struggled to navigate the political obstacles and culture peculiar to Whitehall. “ Conventional models for leading change can quickly founder in the Civil Service. Credible but ambitious insiders are more likely to succeed. This point is emphasised by Dr Catherine Haddon’s previous case study on the efficiency unit. It showed the value of appointing an internal heavy weight departmental poacher as a corporate gamekeeper.

So how well placed are Sir Bob and Jeremy to apply these lessons?

Three of the tests we used to rate the new Civil Service Reform plan help answer that question. Two of them were rated as areas of concern that need attention: is it clear how reform intent will be turned into actions? Is there the right political support? The third test (commitment of senior leaders) had a positive initial rating, but that could quickly fall away if leaders fail to turn promising ideas into ambitious, engaging and well resourced plans for action.

But the good news is that reform is in the early stages so they can take action to avoid many of the pitfalls of previous reforms. We shall continue to track the progress of current reforms to see whether today’s leaders are learning from the often dismal history of civil service reform.

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One Response

  1. David Laughrin on 3 August 2012 at 11:08 am

    Catherine Haddon deserves much credit for her perceptive, well-balanced and thought-provoking survey of the life of the CMPS. The lessons she draws out and Peter Thomas highlights are indeed valuable ones on which to reflect.

    From my experience of the Civil Service College and the Natioonal School of Government, the predecessor and successor of the CMPS, the issue about clarity of goals is certainley key. Were the instutions about large scale training and development for a mass audience – and therefore right for a hard-charging regime – or focused on the high end market in the SCS and No 10, which needed a centrally funded purse and close partnership with key senior figures prepared to invest their time and thinking? To seek to meet both needs in one institution was probably a mistake which also wounded the previously highly successful Top Management programe.

    Catherine is also right to highlight the problem of time-pressure. The heady days of new governments always require instant gratification, whereas a learning institution is an investment in longer term benefit. The two will very often create tensions which it takes a skilled operator to resolve.

    To navigate the tensions, the institutions concerned certainly need the right leadership both in the executive team and the supervisory board. I slightly dissent from Catherine here, in that I think the key here is to have the right teams in place, with the right blend of civil service and broader experience. The right outsider with the right personality and talent could succeed but only with the right insider Deputy and board, and long term commitment from the sponsors.

    The other key must be the right relationship with the other players in the civil service industry and the wider public sector. Any learning institution at the centre of government needs to find a way of working with the grain of what others are doing, and showing early wins in delivering what others want, not appearing to be imposing its own agenda on unwilling victims.

    The lessons that Catherine Haddon and Peter Thomas draw out will need to be applied to both Civil Service Reform generally and to the work of Civil Service Learning, which has an even more demanding task in delivering effective learning solutions across a wide spectrum through extrenal suppliers at a time of dwindling resources. Its leaders might view the dubious chalice offered to the CMPS as rather more attractive than the one they clutch. But as we see from the Olympics, sometimes challnges can bring great achievements and outcomes. Let us hope so.

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