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

The second part of the report proposed the shape of a new civil service which was intended to:

Comment

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.

Professionalising Whitehall

The IfG published the above-titled report in September 2017, commenting as follows:

If the UK Government is to succeed in negotiating the complex challenges that it now faces, the civil service must have the specialist capability that it needs. Over the past four years, the leadership of the civil service has stepped up efforts to professionalise key activities such as policymaking, financial management and commercial procurement and contract management. Professionalising Whitehall takes stock of the reform efforts under way in eight core cross-departmental specialisms ... and ... offers an assessment of where these specialisms are at now, and argues for four priorities for reform.

One recommendation was that civil service leaders must tackle the “entrenched perception” that Whitehall policy roles are the best way to reach senior posts. In particular, the leaders of each profession needed to ensure that civil servants gained greater access to training and mentoring on how to operate within a political environment and influence policy. This would help specialists progress to senior management positions within departments and make a career in specialisms outside policy more attractive.

Meanwhile in Whitehall ...

... reports suggested that Prime Minister May was not getting the best out of her increasingly cowed senor officials:

There was a particular problem in that she had appointed one of her favourites, Ollie Robbins, simultaneously to report to her and, as his Permanent Secretary, to Brexit secretary David Davis. The latter inevitably fell out so Mr Robbins was moved into No.10 Downing Street in September 2017.

Universal Credit

This much delayed and much criticised program ran into further flak in late 2017 with the House of Commons Library reporting that "Emerging evidence points to a number of problems for claimants in Full Service areas, including:

The Library also published this chart, which speaks for itself:

Some argued that Universal Credit (and possibly also Brexit) were good policies, badly implemented. But Chris Dillow disagreed and argued that implementation is policy.

"A failure of implementation is ... often a sign that the detail hasn’t been thought through, which means the policy itself is badly conceived. Reality is complex, messy and hard to control or change. Failing to see this is not simply a matter of not grasping detail; it is to fundamentally misunderstand the world. If you are surprised that pigs don’t fly, it’s because you had mistaken ideas about the nature of pigs. ... Bad implementation is at least sometimes a big clue that the policy was itself bad."

Either way, one is forced wonder whether the civil service good have done more to help or persuade Ministers to improve the design of the policy and/or its implementation. It is though fair to point out that Ministers' principal objective for the Universal Credit appears to have been 'to make work pay', rather forgetting the rather more fundamental objective of providing social security for the unemployed and those who cannot work. This suggests that Chris Dillow's thesis holds true and that it was the conflicting policy objectives that eventually created the largest implementation obstacles.

NAO's Views

Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, made some interesting comments when he appeared before the re-commenced PACAC inquiry into Civil Service Capability. He repeated his by now well-known views that many officials feared that offering ministers constructive criticism would damage their careers. It would be helpful, he said, to find ways to make ministerial directions more common and acceptable. Circumstances where officials seek written direction from a secretary of state to pass up the responsibility for a particular use of public money were currently quite “rare” and “often on a technicality. A Civil Service World summary of his evidence is here

John Major's Speech

John Major made an interesting speech The Responsibilities of Democracy late in 2017 in which expressed concern about the way in which the civil service had been "undermined by its own masters". "It is in our national interest that public service should remain a career that attracts some of the very best brains in our country.  We should value it, not disparage it."

"Why Whitehall is Struggling with Brexit"

Former Chancellor Lord (Nigel) Lawson attracted some attention in January 2018 when he told the BBC that civil servants would "do their best to frustrate [the Brexit] process because it goes against the grain so fundamentally ... Brexit is a most radical change of direction for this country. The idea that any bureaucrat could be in favour of radical change is a nonsense. Bureaucrats by their very nature loathe radical change of any kind."

But a closer examination of his comments revealed that he was making a perhaps more serious criticism of the current government:-

"... officials equally realise their constitutional duty to accept the leadership of the politicians, of the elected government. ... I was... a member of the Thatcher government. We came in and introduced radical change in economic policy. All the officials were aghast. They thought it would be a disaster. But at that time we had a strong cabinet led by an outstanding prime minister and they accepted the political leadership as is their constitutional duty. So we made this radical change and it worked out very well. It is really the job of the government, the cabinet and above all the prime minister to force this through."

James Blitz subsequently offered this sensible analysis in the Financial Times:- Why Whitehall is struggling with Brexit

Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, recently launched a broadside against the UK civil service over Brexit. ... Reading today's annual report on the state of Whitehall from the Institute for Government, one could be forgiven for taking a different view. Civil servants seem to be doing their best to implement an orderly Brexit. The trouble is that political decisions by ministers are making the process much harder.

Three points from the IFG report illustrate this. The first concerns the degree to which Theresa May has reshuffled her ministerial team since coming to power in July 2016. True, the top level cabinet posts have barely changed, as Mrs May tries to maintain a balance between Leavers and Remainers in her entourage. But according to the IFG, some 85 of the 122 ministers across government (71 per cent) are new in post since last year’s general election. Given that most departments are heavily affected by Brexit, this seems a remarkable — and unhelpful — amount of ministerial churn. It has been especially acute at the Department for Exiting the EU where, for example, the minister in charge of managing Brexit through the Lords has now changed three times. The risk is that change on this scale favours short-termism over depth of knowledge.

The second decision that may have made it harder to implement Brexit was the move back in the summer of 2016 to set up Dexeu in the first place. According to the IFG, the government has recruited some 8,000 additional staff across government since the referendum — and this is understandable, given how mammoth a project Brexit has become. But questions linger about the decision to set up Dexeu rather than co-ordinate Brexit policy through a European secretariat at Number 10 (as is now increasingly happening). The IFG report suggests that while morale at Dexeu is high, staff there do not look settled. Dexeu had two permanent secretaries in 2017 and staff turnover is 9 per cent a quarter — when that of most departments is 9 per cent a year. As one former civil servant recently told me: “It’s clear that the leadership of the [Brexit] process and strategy has gravitated into Number 10. So the bright staff will know where the action is, and will jockey to get in there, rather than being beached in Dexeu with little idea of what is going on.”

The third point regards the number of projects Whitehall is undertaking overall. Given that Brexit is such an immense task, one might have assumed that ministers would ease up on some of the other things the civil service is doing. But they are not. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority oversaw 143 government major projects in 2017. That is the same number as it did in 2016. John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service, said in 2016 that Whitehall is doing “30 per cent too much to do it well”. But ministers don’t appear to be listening. As a result, according to the IFG, the government is now confident of successfully delivering just one-in-five projects.

Brexit is the biggest challenge facing Whitehall since 1945. The impression from the IFG report is of a civil service that is struggling to cope under the pressure. The Brexit legislative programme is behind schedule; departments are being less and less open about what they do; major projects, even if unrelated to Brexit, are more and more at risk. Pace Lord Lawson, these problems have not been generated by civil servants. Much of the difficulty is down to decisions taken by politicians — often from Number 10 itself. 

The Universal Credit Saga Continues

The House of Commons Works and Pensions Committee continued to be unimpressed with the planning and management of the roll-out of Universal Credit. In their January 2018 report they said that:

'In 2013 the UC programme was on the brink of complete failure. It is to the Department’s credit that it has brought it back from that brink. Though it has been subject to extensive delays, the programme is now run more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose. It continues, however, to face major challenges. Chief among these is automating the service. While the Independent Project Authority's (IPA’s) call for the “industrialisation” of UC for complex cases and vulnerable customers is an unfortunate choice of phrase, UC can only deliver its promised efficiency gains if it becomes cheaper and less labour-intensive. The Department has consistently struggled to convince the IPA that UC can scale as planned. The Department must balance the considerable costs of further delays against the costs of pressing ahead. The “firebreak” in the rollout in January 2018 and the full business case, which was due in September 2017 and is [not] now expected to be considered by the Treasury in March 2018, are important points of reflection.

When it chooses to proceed with further major steps in the programme the Department should do so having met clear performance criteria agreed in advance. Their failure to do so up to now is a refrain through the IPA’s reports. So too is criticism that UC would have benefitted from better engagement with local authorities. They are critical to the success of UC.

The Government’s approach to major programme assurance is flexible. The IPA agrees with the programme team a distinct timetable and scope for each review. This meant that some important findings on UC were not followed up in detail. Notably, the latest review, which considered the readiness of the digital service for accelerated rollout in late 2017, was explicitly excluded from considering whether previous IPA recommendations had been acted on, whether UC would achieve its business case, and whether it was delivering its policy intent. We were also very surprised that such a major programme has not been subject to the scrutiny of a Programme Assurance Review (PAR) for over two crucial years of its development.

In the eighth year of the programme, a full business case for UC has yet to be submitted. There remains considerable uncertainty about its costs and benefits, not least in its employment impact for claimants other than those in the simplest circumstances. Scrutiny of the programme would benefit from a more transparent approach by the Department. Given its confidence that the programme is on track, the DWP should also benefit from greater openness.

While the UC programme has come a long way since it was reset in 2013, some of its biggest challenges are yet to come.'

And the Office of Budget Responsibility said that 'We conclude that the move to UC is: fiscally significant and complicated to assess; has large, but largely offsetting, effects on spending; involves large gains and losses for some groups; and poses a risk to public spending control due to information gaps'.

 

Martin Stanley