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Building Capabilities: Wither the Department?

Sir Bob Kerslake may have a radical vision

The Capabilities Plan launched last week may look like many of its predecessors, but behind familiar actions you can glimpse a more radical vision of the Civil Service of the future. Is Sir Bob Kerslake ready to challenge the dominance of departments?

Sir Bob at the Public Accounts Committee last Monday 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'. This may sound innocuous, even offhand, but it fits within a consistent direction of travel that the Head of the Civil Service has pursued over the past 18 months and that may yet see him challenge some fundamental premises in the Service he leads.

This way of thinking has been baked into the new Capabilities Plan, which emerged last week after a significant delay. Running throughout the Plan is a subtle but consistent pressure away from departments as the sole locus of decision-making and organisation in the Civil Service.

In particular, the role of Heads of Profession is given a major boost in profile, with an expectation that they will have a more active role in building capability across departments. The Chief Procurement Officer, for instance, will now set objectives and undertake appraisals for Commercial or Procurement Directors in departments, and play a part in recruitment to all senior commercial posts. This line of sight from a central overseer to major roles at a department level should not be underestimated; it signals a commitment to use the procurement talent available to the Civil Service more flexibly on the basis of need and to support individuals in their specialism rather than their department.

The role of the Cabinet Office as the central hub for specialist expertise is strengthened in the Plan. In contrast to the greater delegation to departments pursued in the 1980s and 90s (and little reversed in the 2000s), the centre of government is being established as a guarantor of quality and efficiency. The Major Projects Authority is being beefed up to provide assurance for high-value projects, the Government Digital Service is requiring ‘exemplar’ services to be redesigned and badging only the best with the new Digital by Default Service Standard. Individually the changes could be seen as simply expedient, but Sir Bob said at PAC that he could envisage a world in which the bulk of departmental services are shared and only a dedicated policy resource remains of the traditional department.

There has been no shortage of Civil Service reform over the last two decades and the term ‘corporate approach’ has formed a part of many of them, but rarely has it been so consistently apparent in the logic of different interventions. Creation of the Senior Civil Service in 1996 with shared terms and conditions and performance management, then in 2006 the identification of the Top 200 group of senior civil servants, sought to create a corporate identity for the baronial class without challenging the feudal system itself. The current plans expect a lot more from leaders in the Civil Service, looking beyond their immediate areas to the needs of other departments, even 'sharing specialist resources' from their own teams to central pools and accounting for their progress on everything from raising staff engagement to digitising services.

It is far too soon to appraise the cumulative impact of the measures captured in the Civil Service Reform Plan and the week-old Capabilities Plan, but there is a lengthy history that suggests the forces arrayed against the corporate approach of Sir Bob are legion. As we argued in our 2009 report Shaping Up, while the money continues to flow along firmly departmental lines, with little political appetite to pool either budgets or accountability at scale, most civil servants will continue to see their professional incentives tied to recognition within their department. However, a consistent approach, normalised through small successes in some priority areas may help to shift the centre of gravity – and given that our 'feudal' system is so frequently lambasted as a block on effective government, surely it would be no bad thing for our all-mighty departments to wither, if only a little.

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