Civil Service Reform 26

This note summarises developments in 2024.

John Major's Speech

Former Prime Minister John Major delivered an interesting speech (In Democracy We Trust) early in the year, very critical of the behaviour of his recent successors in office.  The title and this quote will give you a feel for the main theme:

Too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional.
When ministers respond to legitimate questions with pre-prepared soundbites, or half-truths, or misdirection, or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics dies a little more.
Misleading replies to questions invite disillusion. Outright lies breed contempt.
In our democracy, we are able to speak truth to power. But, if democracy is to be respected, power must also speak truth to the people.
And yet, in recent years, they have not been doing so.

In discussion afterwards, he speculated on what would have happened if Margaret Thatcher had behaved like Boris Johnson:

The Cabinet Secretary would have been round to her to say she couldn't do it, so would Mr Whitelaw, so would Lord Carrington.

Leadership Capability

The NAO reported on Civil Service Leadership Capability in March 2024.  Its conclusions were unsurprising:

Government faces significant challenges on many fronts at present, and an effective cadre of civil service leaders will be an essential element in overcoming them. Results from the Civil Service People Survey suggest that overall leadership capability has improved over the last decade, albeit from a low base. In order to build on this, the Cabinet Office needs to bring its fragmented approach into a more coherent systemic approach.

The Cabinet Office needs to be clearer on what it expects of leaders, and whether and how the activities it delivers will achieve the leadership capability it is seeking. It needs to clearly articulate the responsibilities and accountabilities of different parts of the system, including departments, professions and functions. Doing so will enable it to test whether there are gaps or overlaps in the work being done by different parts of the system.

The Cabinet Office should set out more clearly the role it expects external recruitment to play in filling gaps, including for specific skills and to enable it to meet its diversity goals. It should seek to understand how often external recruits leave shortly after their appointment and why they leave, so it can take appropriate action. The Cabinet Office can build on examples of good work within individual activities, for example expanding its spread of evaluation approaches for leadership development to other activities. If it is able to build from these a more coherent and evidence-based system it should be well placed to deliver further improvements.

Department for Transport

Another NAO report, around the same time, this time on Rail Reform, was highly critical of the Department for Transport:

The way the rail system works needs to change, with performance not good enough for passengers and cost to the taxpayer too high.  [The Department had] identified six key issues that needed to be addressed in the way the rail system works. These are: that it too often loses sight of the customer; it misses opportunities to meet the needs of the communities it serves; is fragmented and accountabilities unclear; lacks clear strategic direction; needs to become more productive; and struggles to innovate and adapt. These are not new problems, and DfT had identified similar issues in earlier reviews.

DfT committed the rail reform programme to a timetable that it had identified as high-risk, reflecting ministerial ambition, but without a clear plan for what it needed to implement. DfT planned the Programme across five years from 2022. However, DfT planned important work to complete in the first half of that five-year period, such as setting up Great British Railways and designing a new model for how the rail sector would operate. DfT identified that this was an ambitious timetable, given the need for legislation, the ability of the rail sector to change at pace, and the disruption of COVID-19 on DfT’s early planning work. However, DfT wanted to create momentum and achieve benefits early, reflecting ministerial ambition. It did this despite recognising that it lacked a clear understanding of what it needed to do and how to secure the benefits. In addition, DfT did not have the time to develop contingencies if reform did not go as planned.

Governance arrangements for the Programme have been complex and ineffective.


Martin Stanley


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