Civil Service Reform

Detailed History - Note 18


This note summarises developments after the June 2017 General Election. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.

'The Dead Generalist'

In July 2017, Ed Straw drew attention to his above provocatively titled pamphlet, first published in 2004, arguing that civil service reform was still needed for two reasons:

The report then turns to what the author describes as 'the independence imperative**' of the civil service which 'creates an organisational paradox. Ministers are accountable to the electorate for delivery, and yet themselves appoint almost no one to oversee it. Imagine becoming chief executive of a large organisation and being told that the entire management are ‘independent’, that you have no control over their major levers of motivation – recruitment, promotion and reward – and that they operate as a separate organisation with a mind of its own. Modern organisations do not and cannot work like that. Neither can government.'

Powerful and effective initiatives can still be successful, it is argued, but only rarely and by forgoing 'the traditional civil service approach', as exemplified by the rough sleeping initiative which was led by a specialist from outside the civil service with strong sponsorship from the Home Secretary. Here is a comparison of the two approaches as described by the formal evaluation of the initiative:

Traditional Civil Service Approach  v.  Rough Sleeping Approach

A generalist is assigned to it  v.  Led by a deep specialist/ practitioner

Staff assigned to the job, from the civil service  v.  Staff hand-picked for the job from a range of backgrounds (including the civil service)

Largely office-bound  v.  ‘Service sampling’ approach: i.e. management and staff out experiencing the services with the users

‘Passing-through’-orientated  v.  Goal-orientated and time-limited

Issue guidance and wait for the world to change  v.  Committed, well-led, motivated group

Future careers dependent on serving inside  v.  Future careers dependent on success with this objective

Analyse the problem academically and as a policy matter  v.   Analyse the problem from the ground and from the customer, and redesign the services accordingly

Impartial  v.  Passionate

Dominated by departmental silos  v.   Joining up services

Basic assumption is to carry on as before  v.   Explicit about the need for change

Change has to be justified  v.   Challenge assumptions and working practices, and do things differently

The second part of the report proposed the shape of a new civil service which was intended to:


It is surely hard to disagree with the broad analysis summarised above, nor with much of the detailed prescription for change which completes part two of the report. It is hard to disagree, too, with the report's prediction that its recommendations would meet much resistance, including from the civil service itself which 'is often insular and internally focused' as well as from the 'opposition of the day [which] has always seen most advantage in defending the civil service from government ‘politicisation’ rather than in backing reform to its own long-term advantage. The short-termism of our modern democracy stymies reform.'

Mr Straw correctly noted that 'none of the civil service reforms [since Northcote Trevelyan] have ever addressed change in [his] comprehensive and aligned way' and concluded that 'Tackling the issue will take skill and courage.' I am less convinced by his assertion that reform 'is a day one issue, in that the longer a new government is in office the more it gets stuck with the status quo and cannot break free. Day one is the first day after the election of a new prime minister or of a new party in power.' My own view is that progress can only be made on a cross-party basis - not least because of the short-term politics identified by the author.

A more detailed analysis of the repeated failure of attempts to reform the civil service may be found in my webpage discussing Civil Service Reform Syndrome.

Professionalising Whitehall

The IfG published the above-titled report in September 2017, commenting as follows:

If the UK Government is to succeed in negotiating the complex challenges that it now faces, the civil service must have the specialist capability that it needs. Over the past four years, the leadership of the civil service has stepped up efforts to professionalise key activities such as policymaking, financial management and commercial procurement and contract management. Professionalising Whitehall takes stock of the reform efforts under way in eight core cross-departmental specialisms ... and ... offers an assessment of where these specialisms are at now, and argues for four priorities for reform.

One recommendation was that civil service leaders must tackle the “entrenched perception” that Whitehall policy roles are the best way to reach senior posts. In particular, the leaders of each profession needed to ensure that civil servants gained greater access to training and mentoring on how to operate within a political environment and influence policy. This would help specialists progress to senior management positions within departments and make a career in specialisms outside policy more attractive.

Meanwhile in Whitehall ...

... reports suggested that Prime Minister May was not getting the best out of her increasingly cowed senor officials:

There was a particular problem in that she had appointed one of her favourites, Ollie Robbins, simultaneously to report to her and, as his Permanent Secretary, to Brexit secretary David Davis. The latter inevitably fell out so Mr Robbins was moved into No.10 Downing Street in September 2017.

Universal Credit

This much delayed and much criticised program ran into further flak in late 2017 with the House of Commons Library reporting that "Emerging evidence points to a number of problems for claimants in Full Service areas, including:

The Library also published this chart, which speaks for itself:

Some argued that Universal Credit (and possibly also Brexit) were good policies, badly implemented. But Chris Dillow disagreed and argued that implementation is policy.

"A failure of implementation is ... often a sign that the detail hasn’t been thought through, which means the policy itself is badly conceived. Reality is complex, messy and hard to control or change. Failing to see this is not simply a matter of not grasping detail; it is to fundamentally misunderstand the world. If you are surprised that pigs don’t fly, it’s because you had mistaken ideas about the nature of pigs. ... Bad implementation is at least sometimes a big clue that the policy was itself bad."

Either way, one is forced wonder whether the civil service good have done more to help or persuade Ministers to improve the design of the policy and/or its implementation. It is though fair to point out that Ministers' principal objective for the Universal Credit appears to have been 'to make work pay', rather forgetting the rather more fundamental objective of providing social security for the unemployed and those who cannot work. This suggests that Chris Dillow's thesis holds true and that it was the conflicting policy objectives that eventually created the largest implementation obstacles.

NAO's Views

Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, made some interesting comments when he appeared before the re-commenced PACAC inquiry into Civil Service Capability. He repeated his by now well-known views that many officials feared that offering ministers constructive criticism would damage their careers. It would be helpful, he said, to find ways to make ministerial directions more common and acceptable. Circumstances where officials seek written direction from a secretary of state to pass up the responsibility for a particular use of public money were currently quite “rare” and “often on a technicality. A Civil Service World summary of his evidence is here

John Major's Speech

John Major made an interesting speech The Responsibilities of Democracy late in 2017 in which expressed concern about the way in which the civil service had been "undermined by its own masters". "It is in our national interest that public service should remain a career that attracts some of the very best brains in our country.  We should value it, not disparage it."

Martin Stanley