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: ie 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.


Martin Stanley