Public services at risk of failure without dramatic changes to the civil service warns Institute for Government Director

In his first major pronouncement as Director of the Institute for Government, Peter Riddell has written an open letter to the new dual leaders of the Civil Service setting out the case for deep and urgent reform.

The document, addressed to Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood acknowledges that whilst huge amounts of work have been done to improve the Civil Service, two fundamental challenges remain: the radicalism of the government’s reform agenda and the unprecedented spending cuts taking place in the public sector.

“Within a smaller and reshaped state, a confident and effective civil service remains essential to the success of government” says the letter but it must change dramatically in order to succeed. Whitehall leaders have an opportunity to make this happen, it says, but they need to act now or endanger policies and public services. It adds that “unless reforms are urgently introduced, there will be the risk of a downward spiral of cuts, inadequate services and a demoralised Civil Service”.

The opportunity

Today’s letter sets out the Institute’s view of what the agenda for change should be, based on its work studying the problems facing government and the Civil Service over the past three years. As Sir Bob and Sir Jeremy begin their leadership of the Civil Service, the Institute presents six elements that it argues are fundamental to successfully reforming Whitehall:

•    An emphasis on raising value for money and fixing inadequate financial data, with permanent secretaries taking personal responsibility for cutting out waste.
•    A new approach to the Spending Review, with departments beginning discussions now on how to achieve cross-government efficiencies.
•    A fundamental shift in the way policies are designed and implemented with permanent secretaries accountable for quality.
•    Finding better ways of managing relationships with other public sector bodies and individuals including local authorities, arms length bodies, city mayors and police commissioners.
•    Raising capability and knowledge, particularly in financial management and policy areas but also in leadership and change management.
•    An acceptance that there must be an open debate about the relationship between ministers and civil servants in order to overcome the potential for misunderstanding and distrust

Leadership

Today’s letter places responsibility for delivering this agenda firmly at the door of the most senior civil servants. Permanent secretaries, in particular, must have more visibility, and greater accountability for delivery.

The letter also sets out a challenge for ministers because, it says, previous attempts at reform have “only been sustained when there is firm and clear ministerial backing otherwise the forces of inertia and prevarication prevail”.

Risks

Although “fundamental change is now a necessity not an option”, the letter acknowledges that the stakes are high “not just for the Civil Service and the coalition but also for the public. Success will ensure that high quality services can be provided though at a lower cost than before. Failure will mean not only a demoralised civil service but also inadequate services and a dissatisfied public”.

Next steps

Today’s letter marks the start of a wider public debate about reform of the Civil Service and improving the effectiveness of government. Sir Bob, Sir Jeremy and the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude will give their response at an event being held at the Institute for Government on Monday 5th March 2012.

Further information

An open letter: two challenges and an opportunity

View a video of the event on our YouTube channel.

Public Accounts Committee: Transcript of Evidence from Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake