10 July 2013

The Civil Service Reform plan: One Year On report published by the Cabinet Office today is an unusually honest account of progress and a largely valid summary of what has gone well and what has gone less well.

They are upfront about what has gone less well: “we were too slow to mobilise… we did not identify clear leadership or adequate resources for the actions… it is vital to accelerate the programme of Civil Service Reform”

There has been valuable progress on some important elements of the reform plan. Some ideas that looked promising in the plan have been turned into concrete actions such as creating ‘what works hubs’, improving policy making, and implementing the zero-based review of the Department for Education. And other ideas aim to deliver a step change in progress after years of previous efforts such as sharing transactional services, developing the digital strategy and strengthening the major projects authority. Francis Maude’s pursuit of a core reform agenda has driven much more change than any of his rather short-lived predecessors.

However, for all the progress on some important actions and the merit of others, the corporate reform plan has simply not engaged the wider political and official leadership of the Civil Service. And the Prime Minister is not visibly backing reforms. Familiar barriers to centrally-driven change are frustrating efforts to reform - the Government remains deeply federal in its nature, and this feeds through into the culture and behaviour of civil servants.

And civil service reform is about much more that the corporate reform plan. Many departments are undergoing remarkable changes, fundamentally re-examining their size, shape and ways of working. The scale and pace of reductions in spending and staffing is striking. But more savings will need to be made over a long period of time. What matters most is not how quickly the Civil Service has cut, but how sustainably this has been done and whether it can maintain momentum.

These major departmental transformations are being run in isolation from each other. Our research has found that leaders are preoccupied with change within their own departments and they struggle to work effectively across boundaries even when there are clearly shared interests. Beyond this isolation there are question marks about the purpose and clarity of changes within some departments. We have found that the pace of change has meant many departmental leaders have not made time to set out the purpose and direction of change.

It would be a high risk strategy to continue on the existing path. It is unlikely to lead to a coherent post-austerity civil service that is fit for purpose. We have identified four urgent areas for action by ministers and officials as they develop the next stage of civil service reform:

1.Broaden the coalition of secretaries of state and senior officials involved in corporate reforms. This group must be visible in their commitment to join up changes in their departments to a shared vision for the Civil Service after austerity.
2.Address department-centre tensions by a substantial revision of the accountability and responsibilities of central functions such as HR and Finance.
3.Produce a compelling vision for the future shape of the Civil Service, with broad ministerial backing. Accelerate thinking about the core purpose, functions, structures and operating models that will underpin that vision.
4.Start working together across departments in order to develop the best possible options for spending cuts over the next five or so years. Work closely with the Treasury and ministers to provide cover for this kind of forward-thinking.

We are encouraged that some of the next steps and further actions outlined in the one year on report address the barriers and success factors exposed by the Institute’s research into Whitehall transformation. The report proposes harnessing “the persistent commitment and sponsorship of ministers and permanent secretaries"; setting out a clearer vision of the future Civil Service; investing more heavily to build the right capability; and changing the operating model for some corporate functions.

Such actions are essential if reform is to get on track. The alternative is in no-one’s interest – a potential doom loop of policy and service failures, a dissatisfied public, ministerial frustration, deteriorating civil service morale and a quiet but potentially fatal exodus of talent.