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The inside story on the Civil Service Reform Plan: is it any good?

It’s hard to judge a Civil Service Reform Plan. At the Institute for Government we drew on lessons from past reforms to create seven tests that indicate whether the plan is any good. Is it going to lead to a transformed Civil Service? Or will it simply be the latest round of ineffective tinkering with the problems that civil service leaders have been trying to fix since the late 1960’s?

Last week, at the Institute for Government (IfG), the trinity of reform leaders Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Bob Kerslake and the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude set out their thinking behind the reform plan. Our first test asked whether the plan set a direction for reform that is relevant to what most civil servants do. And whether it makes a case for change that goes beyond cuts. To the consternation of the Daily Telegraph, Sir Jeremy was scarily convincing on the implications of fiscal consolidation and the need to make cuts: “all departments are running the biggest change programmes they’ve ever conceived of, we’re probably only maybe 25% through the fiscal adjustment ... we’ve got a massive amount still to do ... we’re probably in year two/year three of a seven, eight, maybe ten year programme”. Such imperatives are necessary but not sufficient. IfG work on transformation in the Civil Service makes it clear that leaders must set out positive reasons to justify change in order to engage staff. That starts with the acceptance that some of what you do either is not good enough, or no longer fits the world we face. The plan itself makes some bold statements on the need for change: “The old idea of a civil service ’generalist’ is dead – everyone needs the right combination of professionalism, expert skills and subject matter expertise”. “Productivity in operational delivery needs to match the best of the private sector”. “Departments will commission services from others where this achieves a better service to the public or better value to the taxpayer”. “transfer power and control away from Whitehall, devolving power as far as possible to those actually using the services at local level”. “The quality of policy making is inconsistent and needs to be improved”. “[the civil service] culture can be cautious and slow moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change”. “Delivery of ... major projects has too often been poor”. The former cabinet secretary Lord Butler sounded distinctly offended in the House of Lords at such quotes: “the plan pays lip service to the strengths of the civil service ...[it] sounded like a litany of criticisms ... the Civil Service should not be reviled and unattributedly dumped on when ministers policies run into difficulties”. But without such frankness from civil service leaders, the credibility of their leadership would quickly dissipate amongst ministers, amongst the many energetic and reform minded civil servants and above all amongst those who use or rely on government services. These statements are important signals to the Civil Service. Unshackled from the pain of drafting a plan by committee Sir Bob provided a clear summary of what the Civil Service needs to be like in the future: “a more unified single civil service ... embracing a sharing of what we do on talent development, performance management, capacity building, expert services ... we should look at policy making on a shared basis .. It’s going to require very strong corporate leadership and ... a willingness to challenge what we mean by a department in government ... [it doesn’t] mean more central control or stifling innovation ... the key to getting this right is to be corporate and consistent where you can get benefits and free up staff to make their own decisions”. “a more open civil service ... more open in the development of policy... this includes different approaches such as crowdsourcing, combining policy teams across Whitehall, open data and use of policy labs ... these are ways in which you engage those who are affected by policy more directly ... openness in the way we recruit and develop staff ... more exchange with the private sector and other parts of the public sector ... more openness in the way people get into senior positions, less focus on grade ... hierarchy, more focus on ability ...willingness to embrace different delivery models ...test further examples of alternative delivery models”. “a more accountable civil service ... a much clearer sense of what the role of ministers is ... the role of senior officials ...where you sign off major projects and programmes ... more accountability means we’ve got to have more robust performance management systems ... it isn’t going after poor performers, it is having an honest robust process that indentifies when people have done well ... and tackles poor performance ... it should create more professionalism and a sense of personal responsibility”. There has been a lively debate on the level of political support for the plan. We gave an amber rating for this. We think civil service leaders have enough support to get the plan off the ground. However if reform is to gather pace they will need visible support from the prime minister – as well as some reform minded secretaries of state who show practical support by advocating and applying some of the bolder reform ideas in their own departments. Francis Maude questioned the IfG rating: “I’ve never come across a Cabinet meeting where there aren’t divergent views. There is ... an absolute commitment among every single member of the Cabinet to make this happen. Is there in some places scepticism about whether it will happen? Possibly and we will need to show the ‘nowters’ that it can happen”. As one audience member, a veteran of past reforms, put it: “the idea that this cabinet... should all be signed up to exactly the same programme I think is for the birds ... I see no reason why this thing shouldn’t go forward”. There was agreement from the panel with our amber/red rating of “is it clear how reform intent will be turned into action”. In the IfG post-event interviews, Francis Maude said: “the words are easy ... it’s really difficult to make all this happen ... the primary drivers of implementing the change have to be the leadership of the Civil Service ... I mean the entire colour of the leadership right the way through the management structures”. An ex-permanent secretary in the audience urged speed: “please do it fast ... when I was first appointed I went round all my serving colleagues and said ‘whats the big lesson I should learn?’ And they all said ‘we all regret not acting more briskly when we first arrived”. Sir Jeremy queried our amber/green rating of his and Bob’s dual leadership: “[it is] the first time I have ever had a personal RAG rating – sadly its green/amber... maybe Bob we can decide later who is green and who is amber”. Our verdict on the plan concluded that experienced civil servants will watch closely to see who is leading and supporting the programme – from officials to politicians. They will quickly spot any divergence and loss of momentum and make their own judgment of whether it is a programme worth putting their energy into. They need to see action quickly. They will look to see if the bold reforms ideas are being pursued with ambition and the right resources. The positive start will quickly dissipate if there isn’t enough drive, resource or political engagement behind the key actions in the plan. Sir Jeremy and Sir Bob seem to get that. As the cabinet secretary put it: “The thing that would be really damaging is if we say all these things and then what people actually observe is rather inconsistent with what we say“. We will all be watching to see if this reform plan takes off, or tails off.

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