Lifting the veil
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.