The history of civil service reform in Britain dates back to the seminal 1854 report by Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote. It introduced competitive examinations and promotion on merit.

Successive waves of reform attempts have occurred in the 150 years since then. These have been characterised by the political and managerial concerns of the day, but with some recurring themes.

The Civil Service Reform Plan

The current Coalition government has continued in this vein with the Civil Service Reform Plan. In a speech to the civil service in July 2010, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude set out the need for civil service reform "to go further and faster, building on the service's work thus far in increasing its capability to deliver a new chapter of reform".

Themes and issues in civil service reform

Today's Whitehall is vastly different from that of 150, 40 or even 20 years ago. However, a number of concerns and characteristics have re-surfaced through different reform attempts:

  • changes to recruitment and training, including practices, skills and culture
  • the structure and constitutional role of the civil service
  • performance, accountability and leadership.

The continuity of these issues makes it even more important that would-be reformers consider the successes and failures of past attempts.

At the heart of this are questions of why a reform initiative was begun, and what it aimed to achieve.

But equally important is the question of how - the different methods of reform that are open to government. Four in particular typify the conscious efforts of governments to tackle civil service improvements:

  1. major reviews and inquiries
  2. government-led programmes
  3. civil service-led programmes
  4. internal change units.

These are deliberate attempts begun with the specific aim of improvement, and differ from reforms that happen tangentially or consequentially. 

Work programme

The Institute is analysing distant and more recent reform as part of its overall work on transformation and change in government. We are conducting research on past civil service reforms to identify key lessons and insights for current, and future, leaders of reform:

This programme is only the beginnings of a fuller understanding of civil service reform. For more information, see Contemporary History of Whitehall.

Related articles

Dr Haddon in Civil Service World: Changing the change-makers

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