The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform  (14)

This is the fourteenth in a series of notes which provide more detail about, and comment on, the many attempts – some successful, most not – to ‘reform’ the UK Civil Service.  It focuses on developments from early to mid-2014.


Publication of Civil Service Advice on Currency Union with Scoland

The IfG’s Peter Riddell wrote this early in 2014:- ”On 13 February HM Treasury published a letter from Permanent Secretary Sir Nicholas MacPherson to the Chancellor, advising him against entering into a currency union with an independent Scotland. The publication of personal advice from a Permanent Secretary to a Minister is highly unusual.  There are good arguments for making civil service advice public - where it does not inhibit frank discussion with ministers. It can help policy making and improve understanding and trust in the decisions government makes.  However, it is highly unusual to see a permanent secretary’s personal advice to a minister published, especially in the midst of a major national political debate. Such advice is currently exempt from FOI. Historically civil servants are kept out of the limelight to protect them from accusations of political bias. This may be a well thought through departure from the usual rules, in which case the civil service, parliament and public need to be informed at the earliest opportunity as to how the new system will operate. The concern is that this was a hasty decision that will have unintended consequences for advice given to ministers on future major issues – including referendums.”

I would add that the MacPherson advice was clearly prepared for publication.  The Chancellor did not say “Thanks for that interesting advice.  I think it would be helpful to publish it.  Do you mind?”  (It may even have been shared with Opposition politicians before publication, as they, too, quickly said they agreed with it.)  Perhaps therefore there is no need for it to be regarded as a precedent which must be followed or repeated in a wide range of other instances.  But it did make the Chancellor/Permanent Secretary relationship look rather too cosy.

Leading Change in the Civil Service

The Institute for Government published this report in March 2014, acknowledging 'how much the Civil Service [had] achieved since 2010 in making unprecedented savings and staff reductions and in helping to take forward far-reaching changes in public services' but going on to say that 'leadership of the civil service needs to be rethought'.  The following is an interesting extract (with some emphases added) and the full text is here:- Leading Change in the Civil Service

Now, as ever, Whitehall is fundamentally a federal system which makes corporate Civil Service reform difficult. All the signals emphasise departmental silos as the key units of management and accountability. The centre (the Cabinet Office and the Treasury) is also fragmented, with very little institutional support for leadership at the heart of government. Adding to this, there are few levers, resources or rewards for those leaders who are willing to act corporately beyond their departmental boundaries. As a result, there is a disconnect between any corporate agenda for the Civil Service and the departmental structure that is in place to receive and act on it.

This federal structure means that many departments are remarkably loyal to their ministers and can quickly adapt to new priorities. However, it also makes them fragile and invites a tendency toward short-termism. Building capability for the medium or long term is frequently sacrificed at the expense of delivery priorities. Departmental identities and workloads are constantly vulnerable to turnover at the top and to new agendas.

Given these systemic pressures the quality of leadership matters enormously. Political choices – often a deliberate and reasoned reaction against the style of the previous government – have also played up some of the negative habits in the Civil Service. Most notably, there is limited visibility in pushing for co-ordination across government from the Treasury or Number 10. The Prime Minister plays a chairman role, with secretaries of state given substantial autonomy. At the same time, there is no co-ordinating government narrative for the Civil Service to lock into. Much of the central machinery supporting co-ordination – such as the former Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) and public service agreements (PSAs) – was dismantled early on, though these have been gradually replaced with alternatives. On the Civil Service Reform Plan, there has been insufficient political engagement to overcome the fragmentation in the system. The Minister for the Cabinet Office (MCO) has struggled to generate the buy-in required in many departments, despite pushing energetically on a sensible set of actions.

Most important, however, is the lack of effective corporate leadership at the heart of the Civil Service. At the centre, power and authority are highly centralised and personalised in the form of the Cabinet Secretary, the Head of the Civil Service and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Much clearer and more joined-up leadership ahead of the challenges coming in 2015 could provide the permission and support required, but at the moment, the message from the centre is weak and confused. One of the most significant divisions among these leaders is the diagnosis of what level of change is required and whether to continue within the federal model or seek to move beyond it.

Within departments, permanent secretaries and directors-general have demonstrated mixed abilities to lead change effectively. Our research shows that although some teams are leading genuinely transformational changes effectively, this is far from universal. Some leadership teams are unable or unwilling to lead across internal silos, engage staff and grip behaviour and culture change. Most executive teams are also struggling to engage ministers beyond their immediate priorities.

Proposition 5. Civil Service leaders and politicians need to think carefully together about what kind of Civil Service will be required and address their role in getting there with far greater urgency.
At this point in the political cycle, it is, of course, imperative to focus on delivering the current reform plans more successfully than they have been to date. Nonetheless, it should be possible to do this while preparing to meet the challenges in 2015 head on.

Our conclusions and recommendations make the case for rethinking the corporate leadership of the Civil Service, so that it can plan for the future while delivering in the present – whether inside the current federal model or making more fundamental structural changes. Given the historic weakness of corporate leadership in the Civil Service and the fragmented nature of the centre, this is perhaps the toughest reform of all. It will require serious attention from political and civil service leaders in a way that has been rare historically. Major improvements will only take place if reforms are seen as a top priority – not, as is currently the case, squeezed in at the margins.

Civil Service Reform in the Real World

Civil Service Reform in the Real World was another very good IfG report published in March 2014, examining the reasons behind the initial success of four managerial improvement programs:  Next Steps Agencies; Bringing in and Bringing on Talent; Public Service Agreements and the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit; and Capability Reviews.  The paper identifies 10 factors that can lift or drag down a change program, and it should be required reading for anyone embarking on a similar program in the future.

Comment:  I have two quibbles with an otherwise excellent report. 

The first is that it does not look at fundamental civil service reform - for the very good reason that there has been none since Haldane in 1919.  It repeats the assertion - shared by almost everyone who writes in this area - that civil service change/efficiency programs are properly called reform programs, which is dangerously misleading.

Second, it slightly skates over the fact that all four programs, with the partial exception of Next Steps, have been discontinued.  We no longer have the best elements of Bringing on Talent (such as the High Performance Development Program), Public Service Agreements, or Capability Reviews, or at least in nothing like their original powerful form.  All three of these programs have become the (inevitable?) victim of Civil Service Reform Syndrome, so powerfully identified many years ago by Christopher Hood.

Labour Commits to Greater Civil Service Diversity

Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Michael Dugher delivered a speech to the IPPR in April 2014 on 'Why Britain needs jobs and growth in every region' which included the following commitment to increase civil service diversity:

... the task of the next Government will be delivering a One Nation agenda where Cameron has failed.

… In the same way that Labour has bold plans to push power downwards away from Whitehall, we also want to reform Whitehall itself.

Too often the civil service is not open enough to the civil society it exists to serve.  Today, ethnic minority employees are under-represented across the civil service. Over the 3 years before last the election, Labour increased ethnic minority civil service representation by 11 per cent; since 2010 the numbers have fallen by almost 10 per cent.  In 2010, 43 per cent of Cabinet Office senior civil service staff were women; this dropped to 39 per cent last year. Two thirds of the lowest paid jobs, but only a quarter of the highest paid, go to women.  Only 7 per cent of all civil servants are based in the North East and only 12 per cent in the North West.  This shows that the civil service is a ‘closed shop’ to many who already feel that government is distant and remote from their lives.

In response Labour wants the Fast Stream, the programme for developing future civil service leaders, to give those from ordinary backgrounds but with exceptional talents the opportunity to help be part of government.  There is a significantly lower proportion of successful Fast Stream applicants from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds compared to the eligible graduate pool, and it is a similar picture in relation to socio-economic status, with low numbers of working class young people successfully completing the Fast Stream.  Most worryingly, those from lower social classes are less likely to apply to the Fast Stream, whilst the numbers of Oxbridge candidates recommended for appointment is on the rise.

Labour wants to see the following changes:

Parliamentary Debate on Civil Service Reform   and   Launch of GovernUp

Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) which supported the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission on Civil Service Reform, managed to secure a brief Parliamentary debate on Civil Service Reform on 3 April 2014, shortly after publication of the Government's dead bat response to the Liaison Committee (see end of Note 13).    All the speeches - some of them very good - can be read on the Parliament Website.  Sadly, however, there was no clear statement of the Opposition's policy in this area.

However, in a likely spoiling tactic, encouraged by the Government, Nick Herbert MP and John Healey MP had chosen the same day to launch their GovernUp research project .  The Parliamentary debate therefore slowly descended into a debate between PASC's supporters and those of the Government and GovernUp, perhaps typified by this exchange in the final seconds of the debate:-

Bernard Jenkin:  "How can we let one thousand flowers bloom ... if we stamp on the one flower that has democratic authority and legitimacy on the question of the civil service in Parliament?"
Nick Herbert:  "It is a weed."

But GovernUp itself may well become a very interesting project.  Nick Herbert and John Healey described the reasons for the creation of GovernUp in this Times article on 3 April:

Whitehall was built for the challenges of the 19th century and needs urgent, radical overhaul

Imagine being asked to chair a big organisation with a multibillion- pound turnover. You discover that its divisions operate in silos, there is no corporate centre, good performance cannot be rewarded and pay cannot be varied. You cannot recruit talent from outside the company, there is no meaningful financial information and cost control is poor. Furthermore, you find that while you as chairman will be accountable for everything, your chief executive will be accountable for almost nothing, has little management experience, cannot be removed and — in common with the rest of the workforce — will not in fact ultimately work for you at all.  Of course, no one would take this job. Yet this is what ministers face when they first walk into their departments. It is fashionable to blame the inadequacy of politicians for failure and waste, yet our system of public administration, designed in the 19th century, is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country.

Modern governments face immense fiscal pressures, a rising demand for services, and the need to improve global competitiveness. Yet all have failed to match strategic vision with execution.  One administration after another has met problems delivering major projects, arising from inadequate skills and confused accountability. Long-term challenges require joined-up policy, yet traditional organisation creates fiercely separate government departments. Paradoxically, while a weak centre exercises poor financial control in Whitehall, an entrenched centralism in the British state has seen the drive for localism stall.  The consequences of inadequate government go beyond the financial costs. The weakest pay the highest price because of a failure to tackle entrenched social and economic problems. When public confidence in the ability of government to deliver is persistently undermined, faith in politics is eroded.  Tomorrow’s government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better organised and more responsive to citizens.

The superficial narrative of “Whitehall wars”, which sees the problems principally as a dispute between ministers and officials, is an impediment to proper public debate. To identify systemic weaknesses is not to attack civil servants, whose best and brightest themselves want change. In any case, the issues are as much about politicians as they are the Civil Service. The capacity of ministers, the role of advisers, the adequacy of parliamentary scrutiny of the executive and the trammel of short-termism all need to be tackled.  We believe the time has therefore come to take a fresh look at how government is organised, to reassess the balance between central and local power and to consider more radical options to improve the skills and accountability of Whitehall.  We should be willing to challenge conventional wisdom and learn from international evidence of best practice. Many more of New Zealand’s ministers cross-cut departments and issues. Australia and Canada support their ministers with far more expert advisers. Singapore’s civil service is strategic, highly skilled and competitively remunerated, attracting top talent. The role and capabilities of modern politicians should not be exempt from scrutiny. We need to exploit the power of technology to transform government and its relationship with citizens.

For the first time since the Second World War, all three major parties have current or recent experience of government. All are anticipating a competitive general election. There is now an opportunity to find common ground on change.  To seize this opportunity, we are today launching a new project, GovernUp, backed by senior politicians of all parties, former civil servants, Whitehall advisers and business leaders.  GovernUp will offer solutions to all three party leaders before the next election and aim to build a cross-party consensus on the changes required.

The recent introduction of extended ministerial offices, which allow ministers to bring in outside talent to strengthen their teams, demonstrates the potential for new thinking.  That policy was formulated after research by an independent think-tank that was commissioned by ministers and agreed across the parties. If the idea had been left in Sir Humphrey’s hands it would never have seen the light of day; if it had been left to one party, it could have been cited as a constitutional affront and caught up in political wrangling.  In its current form, Whitehall sets a prime minister and his ministers at an immediate disadvantage. For politicians who aspire to transform Britain, reform of government itself should now be central to their thinking and plans.

The Project's home page said that it 'brings together senior politicians of all parties, former civil servants, Whitehall advisers and business leaders in a new project.  Our mission is to analyse the current problems, challenge the terms of debate, and consider the far-reaching reforms needed in Whitehall and beyond to enable more effective and efficient government, with better economic and social outcomes for the British public.

We will work to:

Some Minor Controversies

There was a flurry of pre-election controversy in July 2014, beginning with a report that three senior officials had written to the Public Accounts Committee to advise against more centralisation of purchasing decisions (IT, consultancy etc.) “The government machine is not like a holding company dominating its subsidiaries from a corporate centre.”  This was followed by a letter from Ministers Francis Maude and Danny Alexander arguing exactly the opposite.  This was almost certainly more cock-up than conspiracy on the part of the civil servants. But it was certainly yet another example of how the Government did not have anything like a clearly articulated “reform” strategy.

The second controversy illustrated some interesting issues.  It concerned a 2009 document (Permanent Secretary person specification) (full title: Indicators of Potential for Permanent Secretary Roles) which listed five pages of desirable attributes for Permanent Secretaries.  “Walks on Water” would be a good summary.  And, needless to say, there was little evidence that the document has made a noticeable difference to the calibre of successful candidates.   

The debate appears to have been triggered by Ministers noticing (five years after publication) that three attributes appear to imply that senior officials should not necessarily implement Ministers’ decisions:-  (emphasis added)

The emphasis in the first and third of these extracts was wrong.  First, it is always a mistake to accuse Ministers or the public of being irrational.  It is much more likely that they are being driven by political pressures, or fears, or aspirations, or constraints of which you are unaware, or which make less impression on logical old you.  As has so often been said before “The Minister exists to tell the Civil Servant what the Public will not stand.

Second, it is always a mistake to talk about “the aims of the Department’ as if they are distinct from the aims of the Department’s Ministers.  Nothing is more likely to raise Ministers’ blood pressure than to be told that they are a mere passenger on a ship with a pre-ordained destination.  

Francis Maude was therefore quite right when he circulated the 2009 document to his colleagues and said that “As currently framed, it plainly does not conform with constitutional propriety … The civil service exists not to serve ‘the long-term aims of the department’ but the priorities of the government of the day, while retaining the ability to serve a future government.

Having said this, however, Ministers do need to be aware of the following points.

In a letter to The Times, the FDA’s Dave Penman wrote that

It may be that people like to think that everything in a department is run, day to day, by the minister but this is a fiction; albeit one many politicians like to promote. Ministers can change in a heartbeat and a new agenda becomes the order of the day. A permanent secretary has to ensure the department can handle sudden change, which is only possible through long-term planning.   However, the role goes beyond managing the department; it is the role of adviser, counsellor and accounting officer, accountable to parliament for spending taxpayers’ money. What seems like a fantastic idea for the minister can have far-reaching policy and financial consequences for the department.  If, as some seek to prove, Sir Humphrey is alive and well in the corridors of power, it must also be recognised that the hapless minister Jim Hacker is equally enduring. Perhaps it’s time to put both stereotypes to bed.

None of this implies that officials should be less than energetic in implementing their Minsters’ strategies.  The difficulty is that, in drawing attention to constraints, officials can come across as obstructive.  The 2009 document’s basic message – that Permanent Secretaries need to be able to manage these tensions – is therefore quite correct.

By way of postscript, a Times letter writer drew attention to Field Marshal Alan Brooke’s relationship with Winston Churchill during the Second World War.  Although Brooke was not a civil servant, the following Wikipedia text nicely describes an effective relationship.  Maybe it would be a good thing if today’s politicians and their advisers were more comfortable with argument and dissent?

… Brooke had a stormy relationship with Winston Churchill. Brooke was often frustrated with the Prime Minister's habits and working methods, his abuse of generals and constant meddling in strategic matters. At the same time Brooke greatly admired Churchill for the way he inspired the Allied cause and for the way he bore the heavy burden of war leadership. In one typical passage in Brooke's war diaries Churchill is described as a "genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision – he is quite the most difficult man to work with that I have ever struck but I should not have missed the chance of working with him for anything on earth!".

When Churchill's many fanciful strategic ideas collided with sound military strategy it was only Brooke on the Chiefs of Staff Committee who was able to stand up to the Prime Minister. Churchill said about Brooke: “When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes – stiff-necked Ulstermen and there's no one worse to deal with than that!”  It has been claimed that part of Churchill's greatness was that he appointed Brooke as CIGS and kept him for the whole war.

A general complaint from Brooke was that Churchill often advocated diversion of forces where the CIGS preferred concentration. …. But in some cases Brooke did not see the political dimension of strategy as the Prime Minister did. The CIGS was sceptical about the British intervention in Greece in late 1944 … believing this was an operation which would drain troops from the central front in Germany. But at this stage the war was practically won and Churchill saw the possibility to prevent Greece from becoming a communist state.

The next note – No. 15 in this series – continues the story through to the May 2015 General Election.

Martin Stanley