The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform (6)

This is the sixth 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 focusses on the 2011 PASC Report which increased the pressure on the Government to take a serious interest in fundamental reform of the the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the civil service.

Further Civil Service Reform?

Acknowledging the criticisms of his change programme summarised in Note 5 in this series, Ian Watmore began to talk about "tackling the rest of civil service reform: what comes next after a pay freeze and down-sizing; how we create the future for the civil service out of a necessary retrenchment”.  He argued that the cross-cutting nature of the challenges facing government would require fluidity and interdepartmental working.  But he gave no hint that attention might need to be given to the need to reduce inter-Ministerial rivalries (aka departmentalitis) that are at the root of so many failures to address ‘the wicked issues’. 

Mr Watmore was challenged by NAO Auditor General Amyas Morse at the PAC in May 2011 who said that he was surprised at how few of the cost reduction proposals had been driven by genuine change in ways of working.   “It would be pretty disappointing if through this whole period we didn’t get to something where people begin to see a deeper change in ways of working in government.”

At around the same time, it was announced that there would be further capability reviews – but entirely internal to the departments carrying them out rather than – as previously – run by a Cabinet Office team.  This was hardly going to increase the penetrative power of such reviews.

In the 2011 Manion lecture, delivered in June that year, Sir Gus O’Donnell said that “These new ways of doing business [mean that] we have to strengthen our leadership, … learn to be more innovative and creative in our thinking, … deepen our understanding of markets and quasi-markets, … get better at commissioning and at managing contracts, … [and] increase the productivity of all civil servants.”  But he offered no new insights into how these hardly new challenges were to be met.

But then …

… there were signs, as 2011 passed by, that both Government and commentators were beginning to take the need for civil service reform more seriously than previously. A number of factors were perhaps encouraging this trend:

Philip Collins, writing in The Times in March 2011, argued that "... the Civil Service isn't nearly as good as it needs to be. ...The fabled independence of the Civil service is a self-justifying myth ...The Whitehall culture is one in which caution is rewarded and risk-taking is frowned upon. The pliant progress up the ranks more reliably than the mavericks ... The anachronism of ministerial responsibility, which shields officials, should be abolished."

[Lord] Peter Hennessey, writing in Civil Service World in April 2011 praised the duty of speaking truth unto power, whilst acknowledging that it “irritates a lot of people”.  “Ministers get very cross, because they come up against clever people who’ve been there a long time and say ‘it’s not as simple as that.  You need to think about this that and the other”.  As [politician Hugh Dalton once said] “You’re just a lot of congenital snag-hunters!” … [But the snag-hunting role is] the golden thread that runs through British governance. … We need self-confident crown servants who will speak truth unto power, whatever the cost to them in terms of jarring relationships.  This testing, questioning role may drive Ministers crazy … but it’s essential to good policy making – and self-confident Ministers turn it to their advantage.  They have to listen to … advice and test it out, probe it, ask for clarifications: stretch them, in the way one would as a university teacher with an extremely bright student."

Perhaps, Peter Hennessey went on to suggest, the civil service had become a little less ready to stand up to Ministers.  “It’s much less confident than it was when I was first watching it in the 1970s. … In those days, Whitehall’s upper echelons comprised people who’d grown up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and implemented the post-war settlement. … Ian Bancroft, head of the home civil service in the late 70s and eearly 80s said “… Out those tough experiences we got a very tough distinctive generation.  [But] even the tough can meet the tougher:  Bancroft was pushed out in 1981 having earned Margaret Thatcher’s displeasure.  … Tom Dalyell wrote “He went to the stake on the principle of the duty of civil servants to give unpalatable advice to Ministers … Bancroft was convinced that in order to perform its role effectively, the service had to be self-confident.””

Public Adminstration Select Committee Report September 2011

The PASC then published a report which was very critical of the Government:- Change in Government: the agenda for leadership.  Here are some key extracts [bold emphasis added]:

The Coalition Government has embarked upon the most ambitious reform of Whitehall since the Second World War. The Prime Minister has promised to “turn government on its head; taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities”, re-empowering local government and communities as part of the ‘Big Society’, increasing transparency and openness with government information and the development of a much more direct relationship between service providers and service users for which modern technology can provide (the ‘post-bureaucratic age’). Alongside the hard reality of the cost pressures on government departments, this amounts to an unprecedented revolution in the affairs of government.

To implement change, the nature of government and the Civil Service themselves must change, yet there is little to suggest so far that many ministers and senior civil servants have in fact begun to appreciate the scale of change in Whitehall that is required, or the political and organisational challenges which this represents. It has been widely reported that the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, and others at senior levels in the Government, have been exasperated by this lack of progress and are apparently appalled by the ‘custom and practice’ of Whitehall and by the deadweight of inherited policy, not least by the overbearing constraints imposed by the vast body of EU law and regulation and by the direct application of the Human Rights Act. The Prime Minister himself appeared to vent his frustration when he referred to “the enemies of enterprise” within government.

The principal message of this report is that unless there is a comprehensive change programme for government, there will be little of the real change which was the watchword of David Cameron’s manifesto for government, which the Coalition was formed to implement and which is critical to the success of the Government’s wider public sector reform programme.
…..

‘In contrast, former heads of the Civil Service as well as the current one portrayed the various reforms as incremental improvements. Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, 1979—1987) explained how:  “Yesterday’s reform does one thing, then you find some other need and you have to modify and go to that, and that is a new form of Civil Service reform ... It is a process of constant adaptation within the general principles of the Civil Service’s eresponsibility to Ministers, and Ministers’ accountability to Parliament.”

‘For one of his successors, Lord Wilson of Dinton (1998—2002):  “Each wave follows the previous wave and moves the service on, and that is how these things are bound to work. Every Government needs something a bit different from the previous Government ... It is bound to be a process of constant adaptation and development, rather than a big once-and-for-all change that alters it.”

‘The current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell cited increased diversity and professionalism as a good example of this incremental improvement:

“When I joined in 1979 there was a Sir Humphrey element to [the Civil Service]. I looked up and I saw all male permanent secretaries; there were no professionally qualified finance directors. You ended up in HR if you could not do policy. People that did operational work were third-class citizens; they were not even second-class citizens. That has changed radically and I think that we are changing that world where people who do operational issues are really given equality of esteem. Those things have changed.”

‘The Coalition Government has set a sizeable challenge for the Civil Service: to transfer power out of Whitehall and into communities and as a result fundamentally change the way it works. The objectives of the ‘post-bureaucratic age’ and the ‘Big Society’ policy agendas will require a more transparent and flexible Civil Service with a new role of commissioning public services from charities, social enterprises, mutuals and private companies. The challenge of this new role is compounded by the need to meet sizeable reductions in administrative budgets set out in the 2010 Spending Review.

‘We found that while the Government seeks to embrace change, they have failed to recognise the scale of reform required or to set out the change programme required to achieve this reform. There is a reluctance to produce what they see as the latest in a long line of reform initiatives in Whitehall. This antipathy to a plan for reform fails to take note of the critical factors for success in Civil Service reform initiatives and wider corporate change programmes: coordination from the centre and strong political leadership. As a result, key policies like the ‘Big Society’ agenda and decentralisation will fail.

‘We have recommended that the Government should produce a comprehensive change programme articulating clearly what it believes the Civil Service is for, how it must change and with a timetable of clear milestones. Such a change programme would enable real change in Whitehall and avoid the fate of previous unsuccessful reform initiatives. In addition, this change programme must also include proposals for the Civil Service to retain and to develop the new skill sets required to meet the demands of the Big Society policy agenda, and to address long-running concerns about the decline in specialist expertise in Whitehall, the failure to innovate and to take risks, and the failure to work across departmental silos. Such a plan is required to combat inertia and deliver government policies where Ministers and departments may otherwise be unwilling or unable to drive change.

‘To reflect the changing role of the Civil Service, we have also recommended that the Government should consider the development of a new Haldane model of accountability which can sustain localism and decentralisation; or they must explain how the existing model remains relevant. The new realities of devolving power out of Whitehall to local government and elsewhere should be codified in the Civil Service governance structures.

‘Ministers seem to believe that change will just happen. It is essential that the Cabinet Office take leadership of the reforms and coordinate the efforts in individual departments and across Whitehall as a whole. The scale of the challenges faced by the Civil Service calls for the establishment of a world class centre of Government, headed by someone with the authority to insist on delivery across Whitehall.

‘The convention of ministerial accountability and the Whitehall departmental structures derived from the Haldane Report at the beginning of the last century have, on the whole, stood the test of time. However, in light of the radical devolution of power and functions proposed by the Government, it is timely to consider the development of a new Haldane model to codify the changing accountabilities and organisation of Government. We invite the Government in their response to this report to explain how they will take forward this work or how the existing model remains relevant in these changed circumstances.'

The Government’s Response to the PASC Report …

was published in January 2012.  As ever, the civil service had laboured long and hard in producing a defence of the Minister’s indefensible stance, arguing that it was mainly for individual departments, not central government, to develop change programs.  But they did say that “We will publish an outline programme, setting out priority areas for cross-Civil Service reform, in spring 2012.”  Here are some longer extracts from the response:

The Minister for the Cabinet Office has set out a clear vision (in his speech to Civil Service Live in July this year, and to the Top 200 in November) for how the Civil Service needs to adapt in order to deliver that Programme for Government:

• The central Whitehall Civil Service should be much smaller.
• The Civil Service should be flatter and less hierarchical.
• More integrated and fluid, so that people can move around more easily within the service.
• A different culture: pacier, less paper-driven, less imprisoned by process; more entrepreneurial and innovative, less risk-averse.
• Equal status for civil servants who come through the operational delivery, management, financial and commercial streams. Professional and commercialstreams strengthened.
• A massive upgrading in project, programme and contract management skills.
• More rigorous performance management.

‘This is a very challenging agenda. But the Cabinet Office has already made real progress in fulfilling the vision. For example:

• Smaller: the Civil Service is now at its smallest since the Second World War, following the recruitment freeze put in place in May 2010, saving some £300 million in pay bill costs.
• More entrepreneurial and innovative: ERG saved over £3.75 billion between May 2010 and March 2011 through smarter, more efficient and more commercial approaches. We will carry on finding newer, better ways to do things, delivering better services and saving taxpayers’ money.
• Upgrading in project and programme management skills: we will launch the Major Projects Leadership Academy in early 2012 to build world-class project leadership skills within Government. The Academy will create a new cadre of experts, providing them with an ongoing support network and elevating the status of project leadership within Government.
• Better performance management: we have recently reformed the performance management process for our senior leaders, requiring them to set stronger objectives and holding them more closely to account for delivery of those objectives.

‘The Government believes that the leadership of the Civil Service, and of reform, must remain a collective endeavour. As Secretaries of State are ultimately responsible for the performance of their Departments, so their Permanent Secretaries have responsibility for developing and leading change management programmes in their Departments, and are best placed to work with their Boards and senior leadership teams to lead and manage change, including engaging with staff. Each Department has agreed a Structural Reform Plan with the centre and publishes progress on the Number 10 website each month.

‘The Government agrees with the Committee that taking an increasingly corporate, crossdepartmental approach to change will help the Civil Service to tackle change more effectively. We will publish an outline programme, setting out priority areas for cross-Civil Service reform, in spring 2012. The new Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, will play a key role in developing and leading that programme in response to the Minister’s vision (above), working collectively with Permanent Secretaries and building up the corporate identity of the Civil Service. We will appoint a Director-General in the Cabinet Office on Civil Service Reform in the New Year.

‘Departments are responsible for planning their future workforce needs and delivering workforce reduction plans, including ensuring that they retain the key skills which are critical for delivery of their business. We have no plans to impose central direction from the Cabinet Office in this area.

‘The Government’s view on accountability is clear. Accountability for public services can be through a number of routes. What is important is that decision makers are clearly held to account. For decisions taken in Whitehall, and the operational decisions taken by agencies of Departments of State, it is for Ministers to account to Parliament for their decisions and actions, and the decisions and actions of their Departments (including decisions on whether and how to contract out services to external suppliers). The Government gives detailed consideration to whether Ministerial accountability is the right route when policies are being developed or services are being reviewed – further examples are set out … below. In this regard the Committee needs to consider the statutory position of civil servants whose accountability is to Ministers who in turn are accountable to Parliament, except in a limited number of cases such as the personal accountability of Accounting Officers for the use of public resources, and support the Government of the day in developing and implementing its policies and in delivering public services.’
Closure of the National School of Government

The Government then announced the closure of the National School of Government and a much stronger emphasis on e-learning – a strange decision given the importance of allowing trainees the opportunity to raise issues and ask questions.  David Laughrin summarised the views of many when he wrote as follows to the school’s Chief Executive.

Thank you for the letter. This is shameful but not unexpected news.  I am sorry for you that it came about on your watch. I am sure that you did what you could to encourage Ministers to understand that e-learning does not replace all other learning and that enlightened employers go for blended learning. But you clearly failed to persuade them.

I was particularly sad to see no recognition at all for the staff or the past achievements of the National School and its predecessors in Francis Maude's statement. A more honest statement about needing to save money in the current financial situation might have been more persuasive.
The quote often attributed to Peter Drucker seems more relevant than all those emetic lines to take: "If you think training is expensive, try  ignorance."  I trust some phoenix will arise from the ashes.

Yours in sorrow and in anger,

An equally concerned Christopher Jary subsequently sent ‘a grim warning’ to Minister Francis Maude :  Mr Jary’s last, very readable, communication of truth unto power.  

Institute for Government Open Letter

The Institute for Government published a thoughtful Open Letter in March 2012. It contained the following comments:

“Ministers are clearly accountable politically for decisions, but the Civil Service needs to take responsibility for the quality of the policy process. … Building on existing accounting officer responsibilities for ‘value for money’ and ‘feasibility’, permanent secretaries must also be prepared to challenge policies which do not have a sound enough basis for committing public or private resources.

This is a radical shift in civil service accountability. It would force the Civil Service to develop new skills and expertise. It would need to be underpinned by a shift in culture – looking outwards, engaging with implementers, and understanding users. This also means being prepared to learn from successes and failures. Over time, it should allow a healthier approach to risk. ….

Our research on departmental leadership concluded that the dual-track leadership of departments headed by both a secretary of state and permanent secretary often produces uncertainty about who leads on specific areas and where exactly responsibility lies for any given issue.  Other commentators go further claiming there is a governance vacuum at the top of Whitehall as the result of the lack of clarity between the respective roles and responsibilities of ministers and civil servants.

This is a difficult issue to address. Diagnoses and prescriptions often generate a sharp intake of breath. But if [the Cabinet Secretary] and [the Head of the Civil Service] are to lead substantial reform of the Civil Service, they need to encourage and accept an open debate in the Civil Service and beyond. The Institute for Government will shortly launch a wide-ranging research project on this issue. It is critical to the long-term health of the Civil Service.

The role of Parliament is crucial, but is, at present, a source of mutual frustration. The direct election of committee chairs and members has led to more assertive and challenging behaviour, which raises important issues about the roles and accountability of ministers and civil servants. The Civil Service will have to adapt to that. However, there is a big gap of understanding, and of contact, between senior civil servants and members of committees and parliamentary officials. There is an urgent need for discussion on the means, and style, of holding civil servants to account to prevent the relationship degenerating into a prickly, defensive and counter-productive stand-off.”

The next, the seventh note in this series looks at the Government’s 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan and related developments.

Martin Stanley