Whitehall – a breakdown of confidence or a breakdown of competence?
The press is full of questions about the accountability and competence of the senior civil service. Francis Maude, amongst others, has spoken critically of the Civil Service and recognised that the 2012 white paper has not led to transformative change.
Of course, the professional defenders of the Civil Service point to its recent achievements – managing the transition to coalition government, stewarding major policy change, securing major cuts in public expenditure, and dealing with tough foreign policy challenges.
What is really going on?
There is a very mixed picture
There is no single diagnosis across the whole civil service. Different departments and agencies are at different stage of absorbing change and face different kinds of challenges. At one end of the scale, the Foreign Office appears to be in rude health and on top of a difficult foreign policy agenda. At the other end, parts of the Home Office or HMRC seem to be struggling to cope with their basic tasks. The Department for Education is restructuring after looking at zero-based options. The Department of Health has reduced its size substantially at the same time as reforming the structures of the NHS.
In many places there is still turbulence
Any organisation which goes through major change and downsizing goes through an inevitable period of turbulence which invariably affects performance. In many parts of the Civil Service capability and capacity is very thin and confidence is low.
Official leadership is in flux
A number of permanent secretaries have moved on in the last two years and the Civil Service has lost real leadership talent. The succession pipeline for the top jobs appears thin and the climate hardly encourages the best people to go for permanent secretary jobs.
Ministerial leadership is ill defined
Different ministers take very different approaches to their jobs. Some are very detailed and hands on. Some are more strategic. But the very nature of politics is centripetal – it drags things in rather than delegates them out. Special advisers are very uneven in their quality and impact and can have far too detailed involvement in every day issues without any productive outcome.
The basic business of government goes on…
Any other organisation seeking to reduce costs would look rigorously at what it actually does. Yet it seems that the basic work of the Civil Service goes on. In some areas technology has led to innovation. But the basic task of government – supporting ministers, developing policy, fighting for money, giving out money, and managing relationships with arm’s-length bodies – continues. Fewer numbers of less expert people are doing it, leading to stress and mistakes. But there are few signs of concerted efforts to address the fundamental question of whether what government does is necessary.
Does the reform plan offer a way forward?
Arguably the reform plan has done more harm than good. For most departments – if they were honest – the plan and the Cabinet Office follow up on it are, at best, irrelevant and distracting. In private the mandarin descriptions are rather more vivid. And top level relations between ministers and senior civil servants seem at an all-time low.
The failure of the civil service reform plan is a microcosm of the failure of some other major government reform programmes. There has been poor political vision, no buy-in or ownership by those who have to make the change happen, political meddling and interference in execution, and poor official leadership.
The reform plan is full of good intention and worthwhile initiatives – changes to leadership capability, delivery models, shared services etc. But there is no single unifying theme or big idea which could jolt the Civil Service forward. All the evidence is that departments say that this is pretty much what they are doing already – a sure sign that the plan has had no impact.
The plan does touch on some underlying tensions: it pushes the case for a unified rather than a federated system of government. In routine areas of business, for example payroll and transactional finance, there is a clear case for shared services and common approaches. Initiatives with worthy intentions like the centralising of Civil Service Learning move us from fragmented small bureaucracies, many of which knew what they were doing, to a large outsourced bureaucracy, which works to an undifferentiated and commoditised model. Whatever the intention, let it at least be done well and achieve some outcomes rather merely restructuring one set of bureaucracies into another.
Are there more radical options?
There few magic solutions in the world of business and organisation. But here are some ideas that I think would make a difference:
1. Recognise that reform happens in departments. Ensure the best leadership and talent is there in departments to secure reform. Support it firmly; don’t kick it. Ensure that critical permanent secretary and secretary of state relationships are in good working order.
2. Clarify the leadership of the Civil Service. The current fragmented solution isn’t working.
3. Take ministers as far as possible out of the business of management and delivery. Very few ministers have any knowledge or competence to deal with organisational issues. Give responsibility to the top civil servants to organise and run their departments well. Let ministers concentrate on being excellent politicians, setting political strategy and vision.
4. Accept the basic model of federated government departments and make them into top class policy machines. Strip out routine and process work which can be centralised across government. Restructure all delivery work into agencies, NDPBs, the third or private sectors.
5. Beef up the role of supervisory boards, chaired by secretaries of state and with their non-executive directors, so that they hold the permanent secretary and senior officials to account for reform and for delivery against targets and strategies.
6. Reinvigorate the Civil Service with fresh people and skills. Policy is an expert business. There is a role for a small cadre of top class generalists. But the future tasks of the Civil Service should require a subject matter knowledge and experience allied with the administrative skills to get things done in government. Pay the rates for the skills needed (though in the economic climate civil service pay is relatively attractive).