The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.


There is persistent criticism that the civil service too often fails to identify innovative solutions to policy problems.  There is some truth in this, for the following reasons: 

1    We work for politicians who in turn work in an adversarial and confrontational environment, under constant media scrutiny. It is the duty of the Opposition to oppose. New ideas are swiftly attacked, improvements are regarded as evidence of past failure, debates about the merits of particular proposals are seized upon as signs of divisions within Government, and mistakes are mercilessly exposed and criticised. Ministers do not like to be out-shone by exciting, achieving and innovative officials, and do not thank us for exposing them to criticism for some new idea which has not yet been properly thought through. Any potentially controversial idea that cannot be kept entirely secret is therefore best left well alone.

2    We are part of a profession, and cannot afford to alienate colleagues with whom we might have to work very closely for years to come. Also, our professional and financial rewards come mainly via promotion. It is therefore crucially important that we do not do anything which might upset a senior colleague, and in particular our manager and our Permanent Secretary. We therefore: do not encourage internal challenge; hesitate before saying anything which might be construed as foolish by any senior colleague – most of whom will be older than us; and are reluctant to draw attention to colleagues, or parts of a department, who are performing badly – and yet this is often a necessary precursor to real change.

3    We work within quite distinct Government departments, with quite distinct budgets and for Ministers who are usually in competition with their colleagues in other departments. We develop a loyalty to the organisation, to our staff, to our budget and to our Ministers, which tends to inhibit free thinking.

4    It is a firm rule that the Treasury have to be consulted before we commit resources to anything ‘novel or contentious’. And if that doesn’t deter us, a colleague will soon remind us that our Permanent Secretary is directly accountable to Parliament for the way in which we spend public money. Mere suspicion that we might cause the Permanent Secretary to be asked questions will cause our judgement to be questioned.

5    Common sense, bolstered by the doctrine of collective responsibility, means that it is necessary to consult, often quite widely, before becoming committed to any significant new policy. Colleagues will inevitably express various concerns and, although it might be possible to address each of them, the effort of doing so can be quite daunting.

6    Our work is dominated by major and apparently unquestionable policies, including those in manifestos. There are therefore significant limits to the extent to which we are permitted to think the unthinkable.

Against the above, let me make four important points.

1    Other organisations find it equally difficult to foster internal challenge and innovation. Indeed, variations on all the above problems, apart perhaps from the first and fourth, can be found in most other large professions and organisations.

2    There is nothing in our two key professional duties (to give independent, balanced advice, and to implement Ministers’ decisions, even if we have advised against them) that stops us being innovative.

3    There is no suggestion that we should all become innovative or creative all the time. But those of us that are innovative – and when we are innovative – need to operate in a supportive environment.

4    Being innovative is not the same as being entrepreneurial. Whatever they may say, no-one, and least of all our Ministers, want us to treat public money as if it were our own, or do deals other than within clearly established boundaries.

So here are a few thoughts that may help you create innovative teams.

The key point is that teams become innovative when they are well led, truly empowered within clear boundaries, and measured by results. In addition, you have to encourage a little rebellion and a questioning culture. Allow people, if they wish, to squirrel away a little time to work on pet projects. Expose problems – otherwise they will not get solved – and reward innovation through pay and promotion as well as in less tangible ways. Do not create a team that is excessively harmonious, for this stifles innovation.

Next, I want to stress the value of planning.  The first thing to do, once you have a bright idea, is to decide the extent of the likely opposition and plan a strategy for overcoming it. Don’t be reassured by Ministers’ and senior colleagues’ well-meant protestations that they adore innovative and risk-taking officials. In practice, innovation is fine if there is relatively little political interest in the activity. It is also easier to innovate if you are working closely with customers, and responding to clear customer pressure. That is why colleagues in many agencies and local offices find it relatively easy to innovate, if their head offices do not hold them back. In contrast, just imagine the obstacles that would face the Prison Service in the unlikely event that they found a way of halving the recidivism rate, but at the cost of doubling the number of escapes. They would have to plan their innovation strategy very carefully, enlisting strong Ministerial support, gaining buy-in within the wider Service (which would take time), and – above all – becoming very innovative in managing their relationship with the media.

There are two particular threats to innovation:- the fear of risk and departmentalitis....

The Fear of Risk

Because Ministers are publicly accountable, they are understandably reluctant to make mistakes that might expose them to criticism, even if only with the benefit of hindsight. Their officials should therefore be aware of the risks associated with various courses of action. But you will never achieve anything if your principal career objective is never to make a mistake. You should therefore aim to be risk conscious rather than risk averse. It is helpful to think in terms of a spectrum of risk.

There will be high risk if the suggested action will commit a great deal of money or other resource; if the repercussions from the action are unpredictable; if there is a history of serious error in this area; if the decision is of significant political or media interest; if there will be many losers and/or if there will be a small number of heavy losers. If these features are present then do not rush the decision. You should consult and plan very carefully, and if possible test the water by piloting any new scheme or activity, so as to test its practicality in the real world. In other words: ‘Don’t bet the business’.

There is low risk if an error would have little cost, is unlikely, could easily be corrected and/or is of little political or media interest. In this case, do not delay and keep consultation to the absolute minimum. Get on with it! Far too many civil servants agonise at length over minor decisions, and rush the major ones. They obey the well known law that the time devoted to the decision is in inverse proportion to its importance. Feel free to break this particular law!

But there are many intermediate cases where decisions carry medium risk. In these cases you should ask ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why?’. Try out the idea on one or two interested observers, without exhaustively arguing the pros and cons. If there is no strong opposition, then again get on with it without further consultation. Otherwise, think through the issue again – and especially those aspects that have concerned those you have consulted.

There is no need to worry all the time about possible Public Accounts Committee or media criticism of minor decisions. Such criticism is generally concentrated on major decisions where the risks were clearly high, and the spending or action clearly inappropriate. Indeed, Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, said: ‘The problem is not that the Whitehall culture is risk averse .... Rather, it is risk ignorant. It takes the most fantastic risks without knowing it is doing so.’ Therefore, as long as you are conscious of the scale of the risk associated with your decision, and prepared to justify your decision on that basis, whilst recognising that others might well have decided differently, you will not receive serious criticism. All this was neatly summarised by Sir David Omand who, when Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, told his colleagues: ‘If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough’.



Martin Stanley