21 June 2013

In an often-quoted passage of his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci observed of his society that, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Our upcoming research on Civil Service capability and a new report from the National Audit Office expose just such a tension within Whitehall as civil servants respond to criticism from ministers about their ability to deliver, at the same time as making large cost savings.

Birthing the future operating model

Our research suggests that there is an emerging, but as yet tentative, sense of what the future operating model of government should be, with Sir Bob Kerslake willing to challenge the supremacy of departments, as we’ve written about previously. But with so much change underway at a departmental level the Head of the Civil Service may be unwilling to act too conspicuously as the midwife for a new, more corporate way of working across government. The NAO argues that this ‘fundamental work will be an iterative process’, and one senior government official described it to us as fighting a ‘guerrilla war’.

In areas such as the use of digital and the management of major projects, an old regime of wide and shallow capability, organised largely within departments, is clearly dying and the new is making its presence felt ever more clearly. The award-winning gov.uk project from the Government Digital Service has shown an unusual confidence in the capability of the Civil Service when it works differently; while the publication of cross-government RAG-ratings for the progress of major projects has used transparency as a corporate shock treatment.

But in other areas, the future ways of working are still gestating – and no-one is yet clear what will emerge. Both our work and the NAO’s acknowledge that you can’t duck the emerging tension between the traditional departmental model and one centred on cross-government ‘professions’, particularly in areas like procurement where centralisation of common spend is coinciding with a beefed-up oversight role for the Chief Procurement Officer over commercial directors in departments. There is considerable potential for Gramsci’s morbid symptoms to surface if these tensions aren’t recognised and clearly managed.

Pay as a morbid symptom

One such symptom of interregnum is already playing out in the Civil Service’s approach to pay for ‘top talent’. As we argue in our upcoming report, the constraints of the public sector create some potential tensions between building-up internal capability over time and bringing-in skilled people from outside to fill gaps. The recent Capabilities Plan sensibly commits to doing both, recognising that the former will be a long-run process, while the latter helps to meet urgent needs.

But if the commitment to skilling-up rapidly with expensive external recruits is genuine, the NAO is right to warn that ‘[m]orale and motivation are at risk from disparities in pay between internal and external recruits’, at a time when the Senior Civil Service as a whole have been subject to a 17.4% real-terms reduction in salary since 2009. Without a clear sense of how to reconcile these tensions, the morbidity will worsen as career civil servants question the value that is placed on them by the Civil Service, while marketable recent entrants may yet be lured away by bigger prizes in a recovering economy.

Culture in flux

The NAO report emphasises that the ‘greatest challenge involves changing the long-standing culture of the SCS’. But in a period of interregnum the culture is the most fluid and least tangible aspect of the crisis. From past experience, our research advises that culture is best treated as a consequence not a cause of wider change in the Civil Service. The leadership must make their expectations over positive behaviour concrete through new structures and processes, not simply discourage the negative by exhortation. These ‘catalytic mechanisms’ as the management guru Jim Collins calls them help to make plain the step from old to new, often by the use of small but incontrovertible interventions that take time to feed through.

We are, indeed, in a period of interregnum, but it may be putting it too strongly to say that the new cannot be born. There are plenty of examples of substantively different operating models in particular areas of the Civil Service, which are in their early days but showing encouraging signs. It may be that Sir Bob Kerslake and Francis Maude can provide the necessary ante-natal care. But there is an increasing cast of those wondering whether to ‘call the midwife’ – bringing in the steady hand of an independent inquiry to deliver a confident and capable Civil Service.