Michael Dugher speech on the Civil Service


Thank you.

I would like to start by thanking Peter Riddell and the Institute for Government for hosting this event.  

For an organisation that was only founded six years ago, I think it has had a remarkable impact on encouraging and informing the debate around the effectiveness of government – whether it’s through publications, seminars or events like this.  

In its short history, the Institute has provided invaluable insight for both the government of the day as well as for the official opposition.       

And long may this continue.

As Peter said in his introduction, I am here today to talk about the Civil Service and to outline some of Labour’s thinking on reform as we enter the final nine months before the General Election.  

The capability and effectiveness of the civil service is perhaps now under greater scrutiny than it has been for decades.    

This is understandable. We are having to grapple with the reality of the long-term financial constraints we are under, coupled with the complex challenges facing policymakers and public service providers.   

On top of this, whilst the money maybe in shorter supply, the public’s expectations are constantly rising. Just like with customers of private companies, people now expect better, more responsive, more accessible and more personalised public services, which are easier to use, more transparent and delivered at ever lower costs.  

Admiration for the Civil Service

As it is widely acknowledged, extensive reforms are required to meet these new demands and challenges – and I will move on to these shortly. But I think it is important to start by putting things in context. 

Contrary to what you might believe from some ministers and media reports, the civil service is far from broken.  

It remains an incredible institution, for which I have huge admiration. 

It lives and breathes its core values of “integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity” and it is outstanding in its ability to transfer expertise and loyalty from one government to the next.

Rather than the negative caricature of civil servants painted by some ministers, where somehow officials are constantly trying to block Ministers’ desire for change, and whereby the Civil Service is itself the problem, not a part of the solution, I believe that, overall, a defining feature of the civil service is the willingness to help drive change and to make things better. 

Indeed, change is not a new phenomenon for the civil service.  In my experience, often it is civil servants themselves, the people who can see at first hand from the inside where the deficiencies are, who are the strongest advocates for reform.  

There is no doubt that the British civil service is amongst the best in the world. But it’s now time to take it to the next level. So the question is: how do we sustain the vital values and the great qualities long-established in the civil service, while bringing about the major transformations that our times demand?

The Government’s reforms  

But firstly, let’s look at what the Government has done over the last four years?

Some progress has undoubtedly been made, but we have also seen a number of mistakes and missed opportunities.  

Success has been patchy to say the least.   

In 2010, Ministers were slow to start and didn’t fully comprehend what was needed. Rather than having a comprehensive reform plan from the outset, the Government concentrated on a redundancy programme in the pursuit of short-term savings.    

These staffing cuts were undertaken in an ill-thought through and chaotic fashion, which, ironically, has exacerbated many of the problems the Government is now trying to resolve around key capabilities and skills in commissioning and project management.   

I have also been critical of Francis Maude’s personal approach, which has varied from a bull in a china shop to acting like a man trying to fight everyone in the pub at the same time!

These include:

  • the Major Projects Authority and the work to control large government projects, although the MPA still lacks enough teeth;
  • the advancement of the shared services agenda;
  • more rigorous objectives for Permanent Secretaries;
  • certain spending controls from the centre over common activities;
  • attempts to build a stronger corporate centre with the Crown Commercial Service and the Government Digital Service;
  • more accountability for Accounting Officers and Senior Responsible Officers;
  • and extended ministerial offices.  

All these, and a number of other reforms, will require further improvements - but they are a step in the right direction and indeed are a continuation of many of the changes started under the previous government.   

The appointment of Permanent Secretaries

Turning to one area that the Government has looked at in detail is the appointment of Permanent Secretaries.  

But Labour’s view is that Ministers should indeed have more involvement in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries.  
Ministers are rightly held accountable to Parliament for the performance of their departments, so it is our view that it is only right that they should have a stronger say in the most important recruitment decision in their departments.
As with the model suggested by the IPPR, and supported by both the current Government and indeed by the Institute for Government, the Prime Minister should be able to choose - after consulting with the relevant Secretary of State - from a list of ‘above the line’ candidates.   

Of course, there must still be a rigorous merit-based assessment preceding the exercise of ministerial choice. And appointed candidates must be bound by the existing civil service code and values.  

I am absolutely clear that the Civil Service must remain impartial with advice to Ministers given without fear or favour. There can be no politicisation of the Civil Service.  

But with the proposed strict procedures around ministerial involvement in appointments, I cannot see any increased risk of politicisation. Only a system that is more accountable and effective.         

In a number of other Westminster-model democracies, the prime minister appoints the top civil servants.  

And the proposed system of ‘constrained ministerial choice’ is precisely how the government makes hundreds of public appointments – including to highly important and independent posts such as who chairs the UK Statistics Authority, Ofgem and  the BBC Trust.

Extended Ministerial Offices

I can also say today that Labour also support the Government’s moves to strengthen the level of support given to Ministers through Extended Ministerial Offices.  

Ministers should be able to expand their ministerial private offices with a small number of expert advisers recruited from outside the civil service and who report to them directly.

This should of course be subject to the same recruitment procedures, with selection based on merit.  

Extended Ministerial Offices will be good for the civil service and ensure that Ministers have the sufficient capacity to cope with increasing demands.  

In my experience, it is clear that some of the difficulties the previous government got into with Special Advisers was that Ministers felt compelled to use SpAds not as “political advisers”, but to plug perceived skills and capability gaps in areas such as communications, progress chasing and policy expertise.  

EMOs should help deal with that problem.    

Leadership on civil service reform at the centre has been weak

But despite some of the progress I have outlined, the pace of Civil Service reform overall has been disappointing.  And there have been mistakes.
One of the first mistakes was to split the position of the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary. This hampered reform efforts by weakening the role of the Head of the Civil Service, compounded by the fact that Sir Bob Kerslake retained his position as a departmental permanent secretary.

It is welcome that the Government has now ended this arrangement.

It was recently announced that a new role of CEO of the Civil Service will be appointed. However, it looks like the proposed position could also lack the authority needed to help drive through real reforms.

The job description for the newly created position shows that the new role will not be a Chief Executive in any sense recognised in either the private or public sectors.  
The idea of strengthening the central leadership around civil service reform is a positive step. But the holder of the new post will not be responsible for either running the Civil Service or line managing Permanent Secretaries, and he or she will have multiple line managers.  
To strengthen the role, Permanent Secretaries should have to report directly to the CEO, rather than the Cabinet Secretary, on a select number of issues - such as actions on the civil service reform agenda.  

To have any chance of working, the role of the CEO should be able to hold permanent secretaries to account on specific issues.

Ironically, the civil service reform programme has struggled with some of the very problems highlighted in its own reports: ok at policy, poor on delivery.   

In recent years there has been a broader weakness at the centre of government. 

A new focus on delivery

One of the principle mistakes has been the fact that since becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron has overseen a significant deterioration of the centre of government’s ability to co-ordinate and see the effective implementation and delivery of policies.   

David Cameron is famous for having more holidays than Judith Chalmers and more days off than Father Christmas.

Tony Blair was criticised for 'sofa government', but Cameron’s style is more 'sun-lounger government'.    

There's absolutely nothing wrong with Ministers taking well-earned breaks with their families, but in many ways David Cameron’s holiday schedule has become symbolic of the current Prime Minister’s wider approach to the job.   

David Cameron’s 'chillaxing' approach of hands-off and feet-up has extended to his approach to departmental agendas and a weak centre has contributed to massive costly failures.

But the problems with delivery and effective implementation are not just about David Cameron’s personality, but about how the centre is set up and operates.   

People have been highlighting the problem of silos within Whitehall for many years, including under this Government, yet departments have been acting even more in silos since 2010.  

Rather than working on important cross-government initiatives or corporate civil service reforms, ministers have been focusing on their own pet projects.  

This approach from the top has resulted in a real lack of focus and accountability for implementation across Whitehall.   

It is clear that departments now feel substantially less scrutinised and less held to account than before 2010.   

The result has been a catalogue of broken promises and delivery failures.  

These include:

  • the Government missing its own defining debt and deficit targets – borrowing £190 billion more than planned;
  • the failing  flagship Universal Credit programme – with £140 million already wasted on IT;
  • and missed targets on immigration and the botched and costly reorganisation of the NHS.      

It is instructive that one of David Cameron’s first decisions as Prime Minister was to scrap the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit and Public Service Agreements.  

This removed much of the cross-departmental coordination, accountability and scrutiny that had been built up over the previous decade.  

The move was short-sighted with changes being made just to show that this Government was different to “previous lot”.

But in 2012, realising the mistake following a host of policy problems, such as the beleaguered Health and Social Care Bill, which ended up with over 1000 amendments in Parliament, the Government quietly set up an “Implementation Unit” in the Cabinet Office to try and rebuild some of the successful cross-departmental oversight that the former Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit had provided.   

This small unit has utilised some of the methods employed by the former PMDU, but has far less resources and doesn’t have the same political backing or authority across Whitehall as its predecessor. The overall structure also lacks sufficient collaboration between Number 10, the Cabinet Office and other departments. A classic case of 'too little, too late'.

The government has introduced Departmental Business Plans instead of the Public Service Agreements, but these also clearly lack any adequate accountability mechanism.

It is telling that in one of the Institute for Government’s recent reports, a civil servant was quoted as saying: “I’ve never felt less scrutinised by the centre, and less held to account by the centre, which is very lovely in some senses, but feels completely wrong.”

What we need is a comprehensive performance management framework for government.

To get things back on track, Labour will introduce reforms to set up a new Delivery and Performance regime at the heart of government to drive through key priorities, ensure better coordination and bring in more commercial expertise.  

The next Government will have a lot to do to move the country forward – and will have some serious inherited problems like Universal Credit and border control to manage. We will have to be ruthlessly focused and drive delivery. We will need all the expertise and co-operation that the civil service can muster.

With Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury working closely together, the next Labour government will ensure greater accountability and will concentrate efforts on a core set of outcome-based priorities.

Confronting the problem of departmental silos

This reform – to strengthen the centre of government to improve both implementation and accountability - forms part of our thinking on how we can confront the fundamental problem of departmental silos.  

Loyalties of civil servants tend to lie with their department and relevant Minister, which can lead to a short-term approach. Focus on projects that cut across departments can quickly be lost as officials naturally revert to any alternative priorities set out by their departmental minister.

This problem, of course, is far from new. But more and more, the issues that we have to deal with – the trends in areas such as health, climate change and the opportunities of opening up big data – will require increased cross-departmental working.   

Sometimes temporary specialist units working from the centre are the answer – and these have been effective in the past, such as with the Social Exclusion Taskforce.    

But we also need longer-term imaginative ideas to make sure we have proper co-operation between departments - with joint accountability - on particularly pressing cross-departmental issues.

Whether it’s increasing the number of Ministers who straddle departments so they can bring together teams from different departments on particular issues. Or more imaginative funding arrangements with pooled budgets and incentives for departments to co-operate, this is an area that needs significant improvement and one we are currently exploring.          

Too often, we’ve seen weak attempts to address this problem with “co-ordination” meetings that just sound good and give a sense of activity when briefed to the media. People turn up to massive meetings on an infrequent basis to “co-ordinate” on a particular issue, but then go back to their departments to work in isolation on something that their boss is not accountable for.   

Improving skills and capabilities of the civil service

I would now like to touch on something absolutely crucial to the future success of the civil service – capabilities and skills.    

The Civil Service has many talented people. But it is widely acknowledged that there are still significant gaps in capabilities and skills.  

In particular, we need more experts in: digital technology, project management, commercial contracting and commissioning.   

But the Government’s progress on this front has been painfully slow and in some areas has even gone backwards.    

In 2010, rather than having a comprehensive plan from the outset, looking at how to ultimately improve the performance and efficiency of the Civil Service in the long-term, the Government concentrated on a massive redundancy programme to enable short-term savings and to fit the political cycle.  
As a consequence, we’ve seen a hollowing out of skills, expertise and experience in many departments and agencies.  

However, the Government’s Capabilities Plan, finally published in 2013, has brought some welcome clarity and a commitment to take a more strategic approach.

It is a case of better later than never, which is why we support many of the ideas contained in the plan - from better talent management and the introduction of the Project Leadership Programme, to putting digital and technology skills at the forefront.  

We also support reforms around capabilities in the Civil Service Reform plan, such as: the new Competency Framework; the Future Leader’s scheme; and the requirement for Permanent Secretaries to have more operational experience.

It seems that the Government has finally woken up to this issue, but the next step has got to be delivery – something that has been sorely missing in this area of late.

Labour is under no illusions that significant gaps in capabilities and skills will remain in 2015. We will seek to build on the current government’s attempted reforms and put in place the sustained leadership and engagement that is needed to deliver.   

We will act quickly to publish a refreshed Capability Plan for the Civil Service in the first year of government. This comprehensive review and capability plan will include:       

  • First, a full audit of all capabilities within the civil service. As the NAO has stated, there is still lack of reliable data on the skills, professional qualifications and experience of our current civil service as a whole. 
  • Second, a review of the specialist professions within the civil service. A major part of Labour’s review of skills and capabilities will include new steps to strengthen the professions within the civil service. The Government has highlighted this, but we need to go further. Expertise and the professional groups should be at the heart of deploying capable people to where they are needed most across the entire civil service.  
  • Third, a plan of action to cut down on the frequency of rotation of staff within the civil service. The Government has said that there should be minimum terms for Senior Responsible Officers. But we need to go further. Too often, staff on key projects are moved on to completely different roles before a project is complete. This leads to poor institutional memory.  We want to see less frequent rotations of staff across the whole of the civil service. There must also be a culture of consequences for poor performers. 
  • And fourth, a new framework to ensure that more jobs are advertised externally so that people with the necessary skills can be brought into the Civil Service. Many more of the positions that become available within the Civil Service should be opened out so that external candidates can apply. We also want to see more secondments – both of civil servants going out into the private sector as well as private sector employees coming into the civil service.  This is something that the Government has been slow to make headway on.

A One Nation Civil Service – increasing diversity
As I set out earlier this year, another priority for Labour will be to improve diversity to ensure we have a Civil Service that is more in touch with the civil society it exists to serve. In this way, it will not only be more representative, but also more effective.  

This is an area that will require particular attention as things have been either stalling or getting worse under this government.  

To turn things around, we have announced two major reforms in recent months:  

First, we will reform the Fast Stream to open up the civil service to more people from non-traditional backgrounds, in particular from ethnic minority and working class graduates. Our changes will ensure many more BME and working class candidates can enter the Fast Stream over the course of the next Parliament. This will create a new generation of future civil service leaders who are more reflective of the country.

Second, we will set new diversity targets for the Senior Civil Service to meet by 2020. We want women to make up at least 45 per cent of all Senior Civil Servants and for BME staff to make up at least 8 per cent of the Senior Civil Service by 2020. To achieve this, we have set out a clear 6-point plan.   

The Government has lost sight of the diversity agenda in the civil service, but we are determined to act where they have failed.  

Culture of respect – need a motivated civil service

And lastly, something I have talked about before, an important change that Labour will make is to instil a new culture of respect between ministers and civil servants.  

You have to take people with you to get the best from them.  Only a motivated, committed and well-led Civil Service will achieve the most.    

But as I said at the outset, civil servants are currently being made to feel like they are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The Prime Minister, for example, described Whitehall as the “enemy of enterprise” in a speech in 2011.  
This kind of attitude is wholly counterproductive and has led to many Civil Servants feeling demoralised, demotivated and under-valued.   

The Civil Service ‘People’s Survey’ shows that the overall ‘engagement index’ of civil servants has fallen in 70 per cent of departments since 2009.

Labour wants to see a re-energised Civil Service that feels valued and motivated to help implement the vital reforms the country needs.


So, to finish, Labour is committed to continued reform of the civil service. We will introduce:

  • a new culture of respect;
  • more diversity, to make the civil service more representative and effective;
  • a new Capability Plan for the civil service to address the significant gaps in capabilities and skills;
  • a stronger centre, to improve coordination, performance, delivery and accountability;
  • and better leadership in departments.

We will acknowledge and build on some of the positive reforms that have been undertaken in recent years.         

Labour has a proud tradition of civil service reform and we will take that forward in 2015.    

Ultimately, we want a civil service that can deliver better outcomes for the public. This will be our focus of our work as we head towards the next general election.  

Thank you.