Civil Service Reform Syndrome

[Author's note:  This web page was written around 2015- before Brexit and before there was growing evidence that UK civil service no longer performs as well as described here.]

As a result of numerous management and efficiency improvement programs, as well as investment in IT, the civil service has undoubtedly become better managed and more inclusive. It attracts some very bright, energetic and personable young people and in general seems to provide as good (if not better) a service than many large organisations in the private sector.  Indeed, it is often said that the vast majority of civil servants – such as some very effective prison governors - ensure that the system works in spite of the efforts of ‘the centre’ and all their interference and complex rules and procedures.

But it is also true that the recent high profile change programs (1999 'Modernising Government', 2004 'Civil Service Reform: Delivery & Values', 2009 'Gershon', 'Lyons', 'Putting the Front Line First', 2012 'Civil Service Reform Plan') have achieved less than they might have done, and a good deal less than promised by their ambitious titles, which is no doubt why such initiatives come along so frequently.  Why is this?  I cannot improve on Oxford Professor Christopher Hood's commentary on what he called the 'Civil Service Reform Syndrome':

"We have seen this movie before - albeit with a slightly different plot-line - with a rash of other attempts to fix up the bureaucracy, with the same pattern of hype from the centre, selective filtering at the extremities and political attention deficit syndrome that works against any follow-through and continuity. It is the pattern we have seen with ideas like

Such initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, leaving behind tombstones of varying size and style."

Since Professor Hood wrote this, the following initiatives could be added to his list:   

Rather depressingly, Professor Hood revisited this subject when, with Ruth Dixon, he in 2015 published 'A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less? - Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government'. Their conclusion? - that over a thirty year period of successive reforms, the UK exhibited a striking increase in running or administrative costs (in real terms) while levels of complaint and legal challenge also soared. The counterfactual - what would have happened without the efficiency programs - might have been worse, of course, but his findings are hardly cause for celebration.

Does the Civil Service Resist Change?

I do not believe that there is any organised resistance to change. None of the above initiatives - or any of the so-called reform programs since 'Haldane' - threaten the fundamental nature of the civil service.

Lord Bancroft offered an interesting take on the question in his 1984 lecture Whitehall and Management: A Retrospect:

"During my time the Service was not always as well managed as it could have been ... But it wasn't the result of a dogged resistance to change; precisely the reverse.

We were a bit too nervous and defensive.  As a result we tended to pick up every management nostrum, normally a few years too late just when it was going out of fashion ... We planned, we programmed, we budgeted; we managed by objectives; we analysed programmatically; we policy planned by units.  We mucked about.  What we should have done was to stick solidly to basic principles ...

We were stunningly good at reinventing the wheel ... We should have devoted more of out efforts to collecting, recording, and disseminating good and bad lessons learned by individual Departments ...  But the climate of the times would not have tolerated this prescription.  How woeful a response to the Fulton report it would have seemed ."

But it is genuinely difficult to manage serious change in any organisation, let alone one so large, complex and federal as the Civil Service.  One major problem is that no-one can be put in charge of a service-wide change program:- The Head of the Civil Service has too much else to do, but none of his Permanent Secretary colleagues are likely to take much notice of anyone else.

The other big problem is that - as every business school will tell you - you cannot change just one element of an organisation at a time. One expert defined 'the 5 Cs':- the five fundamental elements of any organisation, none of which can be changed without simultaneously causing change in the others:

  1. Capacity, i.e. resources, and in particular staff numbers;
  2. Capability (or Competence), i.e. staff skills, training, experience and motivation;
  3. Communications, including not only communications whilst the change program is being implemented, but also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented;
  4. Culture, new relationships, attitudes to innovation, reward structures etc.;
  5. Constitution, i.e. organisational structure, reporting lines etc.

The civil service tries its best, and you can see various attempts, over the years, to bring about change in most of the above areas. But the attempts are essentially uncoordinated so that, for instance, Gershon's drive to refocus effort into the front line happens at the same time as tight pay settlements and a decision that senior civil servants should move even more frequently between jobs. There is no doubt that today's civil service is better, in many ways, than its predecessors. But it could be so much better still - especially when it comes to policy-making, where it arguably performs less well than in previous generations.

Sir Michael Bichard makes the same point:

"To improve efficiency levels in the service, the government needs to look at how civil servants' work should be done and how the service as a whole is structured. Different departments develop initiatives in isolation. There have been too many false starts, too many initiatives that don't come together as a coherent change program. And it is this incoherent approach that leaves civil servants demoralised and confused."


Martin Stanley

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