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Civil service reform goes mainstream

To make progress, the government needs to change the incentives for civil servants, welcome scrutiny and be prepared to devolve power.

The first year of the Johnson government has seen civil service reform in the headlines. To make progress, the government needs to change the incentives for civil servants, welcome scrutiny and be prepared to devolve power. That’s a challenge for ministers as well as civil servants, argues Alex Thomas

Voters generally have a healthy lack of interest in how bureaucrats organise themselves. Even so, reforming the machinery of government regularly piques ministerial interest, despite the subject proving gruelling in practice. Michael Gove, as he follows up his 27 June lecture on 'The Privilege of Public Service', will find that his work moves quickly from the heights of the philosophy of government to the reality of just how many desks need to be moved from one location to another. From Gramsci and Roosevelt to Gantt charts and pay scale increments: changing things in the civil service is about sustained attention to detail.

That is why the Institute for Government’s conference this week on civil service reform was timely. Participants welcomed the government’s aims to reduce civil service turnover, to reward people who take responsibility, to innovate more while building up new skills and to move officials out of London. They identified a gap with plans missing to improve civil service leadership and motivate its workforce, but at the same time warned reformers not to prioritise too many different things.

They also challenged the government to put aside its instincts towards confrontation, lack of scrutiny and centralisation. Talking about civil service reform will not work if it is a way to deflect blame for failings in the government’s coronavirus response. Reform will succeed if it is a collective effort to do things better.

Reward people who take responsibility and stay in post

Reformers are right to want to reduce job turnover and to encourage civil servants – as well as ministers – to stay in the same roles for longer and to be in post to deal with the consequences of their actions. Building up more experienced and knowledgeable civil servants is a good thing.

One part of the answer is changing the civil service career structure, incentivising people to stay in jobs for longer by paying them based on expertise, experience and successful results over time. That needs ministers as well as senior civil servants to be disciplined. They will need to stop recognising the fixers who move energetically from one crisis to the next, and to invest their energy in people who stay around.

Ministers will also need to make sure their teams are not afraid of the consequences of failure, or constrained by box-ticking and back-covering. Regimes for holding people to account have in the past stifled creativity and worked against civil servants at all levels taking responsibility for getting things done. The government needs to invest in its people and to build leadership capability at all levels of the civil service through more intensive development programmes for everyone, and to prioritise that over targets and crude incentives on pay and performance.

Promote innovation by welcoming scrutiny about why policies fail

Ministerial and civil service policy teams must also put resources – people and money – into evaluating whether a policy is doing what it is meant to. We have seen through the coronavirus response that government works best, whether on the economic support packages or refining its guidance, when nimbly responding to external and internal challenge. Rapid evaluation frees government to innovate more freely, and quickly make changes when things are not working.

Scrutiny and evaluation will, of course, sometimes be uncomfortable when it shows that government decisions were wrong, or that there are significant problems with how a scheme is working. Longer-term policy evaluation might also seem like a luxury that will benefit a minister’s successors rather than themselves. But it will mean more effective government and better results for citizens.

Getting out of London is not a substitute for devolving power and money

Ministers and civil servants are enthusiastic about taking departmental teams out of London, though questioners at our conference were concerned that it would simply mean moving officials to already prosperous metropolitan areas like York and Manchester. Others felt that ministers and the Treasury would use the associated reduced cost of living as a reason to reduce pay.

But the real worry was that moving civil servants out of London would be symbolic, used as cover to centralise more power.

The immense challenges this government faces – the coronavirus response, levelling up across the country, making progress towards net zero climate change targets and Brexit – all require work across normal departmental boundaries and all levels of the public sector. For example, we have seen in the evolution of the government’s coronavirus testing programme that harnessing local structures and handing decisions to those closest to the action is more effective than centralised command and control.

Ministers and their advisers are right to want to set a strong central direction. But a confident government should also have the ambition to see civil service reform as just one part of its wider programme to break down barriers across the state and to give responsibilities to those best placed to deliver them.

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