08 February 2011

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) is attempting to establish a good governance framework to scrutinise civil service reform. This will be a big challenge because so much of the reform agenda is yet to be articulated.

As part of its inquiry into civil service reform, PASC has set itself the challenge of developing a "framework of what constitutes good governance within which civil service reform can be effectively scrutinised and measured".

It would not be difficult for the committee to come up with a set of abstract principles, as Christopher Hood reflected in his evidence. However, PASC has committed itself to developing a more detailed framework through which to hold ministers and the civil service to account for reform.

It is hard to see how this is possible without answers to the following 'known unknowns':

1. What is the vision for the civil service?

The closest thing that exists to a vision for civil service reform is the government’s exposition of a "post-bureaucratic age". This is far from meaningless political jargon - Christopher Hood and Martin Lodge argued this involves at least four substantive ideas:

  • decentralising power
  • doing less
  • increasing public participation in public services
  • 'nudging' rather than compelling citizens to change their behaviour.

However, whilst this clearly has implications for the civil service, it doesn’t provide a vision for civil service reform. The Institute's director of research Julian McCrae said to PASC that the big question was: "what does the civil service look like in three or four years' time?... What’s the blueprint that people can aim for so they know whether they are on the right course?"

2. What needs to change?

Asking Whitehall to adapt to a post-bureaucratic age is a challenge which is more than just the linguistic oxymoron. There are many deep-seated barriers to change. As serving permanent secretaries Helen Ghosh and Suma Chakrabarti reflected, traditional accountability structures are still key drivers of behaviour.

Accountability to parliament of ministers and accounting officers in each department tends to reinforce top-down performance management and siloed working. It also contrasts directly with the increasingly complex web of accountability beyond Westminster and Whitehall such as the introduction of elected police commissioners and increasing transparency of government data. These encourage accountability to flow outwards to citizens and communities rather than upwards.

How government intends to align these fundamentals is unclear. As Charlie Elphicke, a member of PASC, put it,"a lot of us would like the civil service to serve we, the people, because we pay them our taxes. We have a reform agenda based on decentralisation, transparency, local accountability and other such things. Is that not just deckchair shuffling, which won’t amount to anything really?"

3. How are the risks being managed?

At the same time, the civil service is currently facing the largest spending cuts since demobilisation after World War Two. This can only be achieved through major change programmes but, as witness Andrew Kakabadse reflected, only "about a third" of such programmes succeed in the public or private sector.

No one can know in advance how successful reform will be across Whitehall, but if that ratio holds true in the coming years, the risks are potentially enormous.

In a muddle?

At one point Bernard Jenkin, chair of PASC, reflected: "So you think we are in a muddle".

Rather than attempting to fill the vacuum by spelling out its own set of governance principles, PASC should hold ministers and the civil service to account on their ability to articulate a vision for civil service reform, what principles the government is using and how they know they are on course.