Civil Servant


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, which deserve separate web pages. The first is the fear of risk. The second is departmentalitis.


Martin Stanley