In our 2011 report, Making Policy Better we noted that change would only happen if “there was clear ownership within departments for the integrity and health of the policy making system”; that “the doctrine of ministerial responsibility makes it too easy for the Civil Service to avoid taking responsibility for the quality of individual policy decisions”; and that “some departments have failed to create a culture that consistently challenges policy making to ensure it is high quality”. We also noted that “no one at the centre of government has a general brief for the quality of the policy process”.
The publication of the policy profession review yesterday shows that the “policy profession” is now willing to rise to our challenges.
It makes some potentially significant changes.
First, it beefs up the role of the Head of Policy Profession in departments – with a responsibility both to raise standards and drive improvement within the department but also to contribute to civil service wide action to professionalise. And it commits departmental permanent secretaries (all of whom signed the report) to support the transformation of the Head of the Policy Profession role. It is now clear who is accountable for the quality of policy making in departments.
Second, it commits departments to produce improvement plans against which progress can be tracked. There have already been some good examples of what can be achieved within departments – not least in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who included policy making in their Diplomatic Excellence programme.
Third, it recognises the need for better induction for new entrants – and for more commitment to continuous professional development. This has been a real area of weakness – and a big contrast between the “weak” profession of policy making and the more traditional professions who devote more time and effort to this.
Fourth, it provides for some more central support to the Heads of Profession to enable them to undertake these changes.
And finally, it commits every department to develop their own “fundamental policy standards”. We set out our seven policy fundamentals in Making Policy Better and Department for Education have been using their five policy tests which all policies need to pass. This provides an essential building block for internal quality assurance and challenge.
Civil service reform
This review is part of the wider commitment in the Civil Service Reform Plan for the professions to look at their role. But, as was recognised at the launch, “policy” and “policy advice” cannot be the sole prerogative of people who decide they are in the policy profession. Policy making is essentially a collaborative act – and needs to draw in multiple sources of knowledge and subject and functional expertise inside, across and outside departments – both about the nature of the problem and the practicalities of delivery. So civil service “professions” cannot improve in splendid isolation – they need to work together.
Second, they need to engage ministers. At the launch, Oliver Letwin admitted that he thought none of his colleagues would be aware of the profession review. They need to be engaged – and recognise that they have important roles both as customers of advice but also as creators of an environment that enables the Civil Service to perform its policy function better. The impetus behind the FCO improvement programme came from the Foreign Secretary telling FCO officials he thought they could do better.
People go to professional lawyers for legal advice and to doctors for medical advice. The test of whether this programme succeeds in “professionalising” civil service policy making is whether it earns the Civil Service its place back at the heart of the policy making process. Will they come to be seen by ministers of whatever persuasion as the experts, whose advice you need and ignore at your peril, on how to translate political objectives into effective change?