04 October 2013

The civil service policy profession’s commitment to self-improvement is a welcome advance. But previous attempts at improving policy have not lived up to the expectations set. This time the Civil Service needs to step up to prove its value to increasingly sceptical ministers and the public.

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.

Improving policy

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.

Bottom line

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?


The proof of the puddings...etc.
You will know as well as me the amount of effort the Civil Service - both at central & departmental level - has put into improving the programme & project management (PPM) process. Yet, from the outside at least, it doesn't seem a whole lot better. It strikes me that these things only work when they are seen as important by the senior people who count. For instance, I could easily lose count of the number of times I've been involved in the introduction of a new performance management/appraisal system, which would iron out all the failings of its predecessor. But because the day-to-day management of performance (sometimes a difficult task involving emotional stress)was not valued by the people that counted, the latest system did little better than its predecessor, if at all.
So the question for me is less about the content, but more about how it will be acted on in practice. (I also think - from a separate debate - that the civil service should be doing more to free the policy making process from the grip of vested interests and trial a lot more bottom-up policy making, involving trials at local level, involving local people - including getting those who don't always get to make themselves heard listened to. Too much policymaking is top-down & based on either Ministerial belief rather than evidence or the efforts of those with the access to policymakers. the result too often is a disjunction between the policy and its delivery - since the world as perceived by those taking the decisions isn't what it's really like.

Good comments Richard...

but am encouraged that the civil service itself is identifying quality of policy making as an issue.

Hopefully "open" policy making will take some of the risks you suggest below. the Danes, for instance, are very good at user-centred design.

at the launch Oliver Letwin gave a very persuasive response on the need for more experimentation and iteration -- just what we suggested was needed in our System Stewardship report.