Lifting the veil

22 July 2013

Joining the Civil Service used to mean putting an X in the box marked ‘no publicity’ – at least until you rose so far to be summoned to star in front of the PAC. But a new initiative under the Civil Service Reform Plan, encourages civil servants to write about their work. It is a useful step forward – but success is far from assured.

The pilot edition of the Civil Service Quarterly appeared last week on gov.uk. It is a compilation of blogs on issues covering range of government activity – from disaster management, to the new policy tests in the Department for Education, an interview by former FT editor and CBI head Sir Richard Lambert with Treasury Chief Economic Adviser Dave Ramsden and the almost inevitable article by the Behavioural Insight Team.

The “quarterly” (a name designed to make it sound like an academic journal?) seeks to address a number of areas in which the Civil Service in general and the policy profession in particular has been weak in the past: knowledge of what is going on beyond your silo (team, division, group, department); lack of mechanisms to share and a lack of capacity (time/inclination) to reflect before moving on to the next priority. If the journal can become a vehicle for doing this, it will serve a useful purpose.

But this sort of initiative often starts with a fanfare and then fizzles out. It has made a good start – but the real test will be the second and third editions – or, better still, a steady stream of interesting material.

Some thoughts on where it can go next. First, it needs a wider spread of departments contributing – too many of the articles this time round are generated by people close to the centre – and focus as much on delivery as policy formulation. If this is to be by the Civil Service, for the Civil Service it needs to reflect the wide diversity of where civil servants work and what they do.

Second, the content needs to be riskier and more challenging. Part of the benefit of this is to make the Civil Service more reflective, more self-critical – and more capable of self-improvement. As the Institute for Government argued in its recent discussion paper on Civil Service capabilities, doing this requires giving people the space to stand back and reflect on what worked and what did not – but that gets into much more sensitive territory. But if that does not happen, a succession of unblemished success stories will both diminish the learning and turn readers off. Francis Maude supports this initiative – he needs to make clear that ministers are prepared to see some uncomfortable pieces appear.

Third, people need to be encouraged to contribute – and be rewarded for taking the time to share their insights with their colleagues. This is a significant behavioural shift for civil servants – so it might be worth thinking about what behavioural insights could add (one for the Behavioural Insight Team?)

Here are some based on the Institute’s own MINDSPACE report.

First, raise the salience. It helps if people are visibly reading the material posted. Thus far there are very few comments. Senior leaders should be reading and adding their thoughts. Permanent secretaries need to worry if their department is not a regular contributor.

There needs to be positive feedback to those who do take the time to contribute – playing on ego. Individuals needs to see this as a way of demonstrating their professionalism – and demonstrating to others that they are doing a good job.

Finally, the real impact will come if this is hardwired into incentives. If the Civil Service is to become a more open, learning organisation, the civil service leadership needs to establish an expectation that future leaders are those who have been able to constructively reflect on their experiences and taken time to share those with their colleagues.

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Comments (2)

  1. Alae on 4 September 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Hmm. I think this might be better news that it appears to be on the surface. Call me a hopeless optimist if you will, but there’s surely just an outside possibility that this new proposal might be the Government’s way of slyly cutting funds to all those fake “health” charities (ASH spring to mind, but no doubt there are countless others) who currently rely heavily on taxpayers’ money for their survival, without appearing to “ease up” on the “health message” so beloved of politicians of all shades. After all, how can those charities possibly object to funds being diverted to a “nudge” unit such as this when it areapps, to all intents and purposes, to support many of their own aims? That would make them appear – shock! horror! – more concerned with their own existence than the furtherance of their much-trumpeted “health” objectives, wouldn’t it?And one would hope that with the injection of funds from the private sector, there would be a much better analysis of whether or not the money is likely to be wisely spent. When deciding whether or not to invest, for example, a private funder is more likely to question whether it is really worthwhile to invest in a “nudge” unit who is largely intending to focus their attentions on a relatively small percentage of the population who have already been nudged to death and who are unlikely now to take any notice of further nudging; on the other hand it might well be worth investing in a “nudge” unit who are intending to devote more time to “unhealthy” lifestyles which are indulged in by a much higher proportion of the population – alcohol, obesity, lack of exercise, or overwork, for example. Not, of course, that any of these things are the business of any “nudge” unit – I’d rather they just kept their noses completely out of people’s lives – but at least the hectoring and finger-wagging might just be a bit more even-handed. And that, for smokers, would at least be a bit of a relief.

  2. Jill Rutter on 11 September 2013 at 11:30 am

    Hi Alae:

    thanks for commenting but am a bit unclear how this relates to the new CS Quarterly.. you might want to post this comment on the article in it on behavioural insights.

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