Civil Service Reform two years on: some optimism and a little fear

7 October 2014

It was a quiet three months after the second anniversary of the 2012 Civil Service Reform plan passed in June. But suddenly in the last 10 days there has been a flurry of activity to excite the civil service reformer.

There are grounds for optimism about the prospects for civil service reform in the story told by the two years on report.

It has a crisp, open tone that is counter-cultural and refreshing. The web version is littered with case studies and videos. Reading the report makes you feel that senior leaders are serious about reform and open to challenge.

The two years on report presents an encouraging story of what has progressed, and a plain account of what has not.

It concentrates on the seven reform ‘game-changers’ that were pruned down from the original 18 reform actions. These are the most important areas, and resonate strongly with reform-minded civil servants and ministers.

It demonstrates reform leaders are serious about building on the sound start they have made, with strengthened actions for reform. Francis Maude deserves credit for sticking with the job.

It is always easy to mock moves to build capability, change culture or improve policy making. But their evolution is increasingly convincing and specific. The reform ‘game-changers’ with a good story to tell are digital, major projects, functional leadership and, in part, policy making.

There are few new, bold actions.

For example all senior civil service recruitment below permanent secretary will be open to external competition by default by April 2015. Like the last big push to open up the Civil Service in the late 1990’s, Bringing in and Bringing on Talent, this will eventually change diversity and culture.

And the report provides evidence that new ways to work are getting the support and drive they need, for example: accelerated decision making; improved policy making; and, stronger programme and project management. It is tangible changes like these that could improve the culture of the civil service.

But the report, by what is not said, raises fears that two crucial issues are still framed too vaguely, or seem to be moving away from the sights of the new senior leadership.

Reinventing Whitehall: How boldly will they go?

In the last two years Sir Bob Kerslake has been the key leadership voice questioning the federal bedrock of the Civil Service. At the Public Accounts Committee in April 2013 he reiterated that if the Civil Service is going to become more skilled, less bureaucratic and more unified ‘you have to change what you define as a department’. That sentiment ran through the Capability Plan published at the same time: ‘a subtle but consistent pressure away from departments as the sole locus of decision-making and organisation in the Civil Service.’

Such potential was plainly evident in the previous one year on and capability plan – it has gone missing in this draft. Hopefully it is still in play.

As the Financial Times reported, in his recent speech at the IfG Sir Bob expressed frustration at not making more tangible progress towards a quite different civil service.

‘On one occasion he believed he had negotiated a compromise between civil servants from two departments concerning a programme related to both, only to have one tell him that his minister had rejected the arrangement. “It never was the minister,” he said, “but the bloody civil servant winding him up. It was so annoying you lost the will to live at some points in this process.”’

Functional leadership is a key part of the new Chief Executive’s role, who will also act as an Accounting Officer, and in most cases the line manager for the eight existing professional functions.

Manzoni’s early comments suggest this gap in the report is a blip rather than a sign of timidity and backtracking in the face of the entrenched federalism of the Civil Service.

‘I’ve spent a lifetime in big, complex global organisations… I’ve seen organisations go through transformations into functional structures – which is underneath a lot of this [civil service] reform plan… so I’ve spent my life doing some of the things that are crying out to be done here.’

Effective corporate leadership of the civil service

In our report Leading Change in the Civil Service we were gloomy about the state of corporate leadership:

There is not a shared view of the level of action required to reform the Civil Service. This sends out mixed messages and weakens the case for corporate leadership even among those most willing to lead beyond their own department.

An urgent first task is to decide whether the reform agenda is about leading changes within the federal model or aiming to go beyond it – especially for reforms, such as shared services and corporate functions, which are already hitting the federal barriers.

Differences of opinion need to be acknowledged and worked through, tested with others to find the right course so that they can be passed on to the next generation of leaders. Without this change, the trajectory of reform across the Civil Service will not improve sufficiently…

There are strong words on this issue in the foreword to the two year on report from Maude and Heywood:

‘There needs to be clear, collective Civil Service leadership, focused on performance and competence, and every bit as up for changing the Civil Service as are civil servants deeper in the organisation. This is the top priority for the incoming Chief Executive and Head of the Civil Service, working closely with Ministerial and official colleagues to achieve it.’

But the actions behind these words are the least convincing part of the report.

Their first solution is underwhelming: they will publish a statement setting out the leadership behaviours expected.

While the other actions are generally valuable, the list is completely silent on what the Civil Service Board, and its most senior members – Heywood, Macpherson and Manzoni – will do differently to model the corporate leadership that the reforms demand.

As the report puts it: ‘culture changes embed most quickly when driven and role-modelled by senior leaders’.

The Civil Service will take its lead from what their leaders do and what they are seen to reward. As the new leadership trio begin to work together would-be reformers will be watching closely.

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