Take care! Politicians and senior civil servants use the phrase 'civil service reform' to summarise two quite different strands of activity:
Subsequent reports and initiatives have focussed on management and efficiency. Although far-reaching, the 1968 Fulton Report looked at the structure, recruitment, management and training of the civil service; its authors complained that they were not allowed to look more widely at questions such as the number and size of departments, and their relationships with each other and the Cabinet Office. The post-1979 Thatcher government then focussed on improving the efficiency of the big, high-spending departments and achieved notable success, including sharpened financial management and the establishment of separately managed 'Next Steps' Executive Agencies. Subsequent reform programmes have also been essentially managerial, and have addressed subjects such as leadership, performance management, the role of the Senior Civil Service and improved delivery.
But serious questions remain about the performance of the government machine. Looking again at the two strands identified above:
- The quality of policy making, and support for Ministers more generally, remains patchy. Too much of the best civil service policy-making talent is nowadays devoted to maintaining the governing party in power rather than in formulating and delivering policy. Ministers have responded in piecemeal fashion by strengthening the centre of government, giving special advisers a little more power, and introducing and then strengthening departmental boards, but there has been no serious review of the fundamental relationship between Parliament, Ministers and civil servants.
- More positively, the civil service has, over the years, undoubtedly become better managed, more efficient and less stuffy, in its higher reaches. It attracts some very bright, energetic and personable young people and in general seems to provide as good (if not better) a service than similarly large organisations in the private sector. But the more high profile change programmes (1999: 'Modernising Government', 2004: 'Civil Service Reform: Delivery & Values', 'Gershon' and 'Lyons', 2009: 'Putting the Front Line First') have achieved much less than they might have done, which is why the initiatives come along so frequently.
The rest of this note briefly summarises the history of civil service reform, including managerial reform, and explains why the major change programmes, and the other, lower profile initiatives, so regularly fail to achieve their objectives. A detailed history of civil service reform from 1997 may be found in the other web pages listed at the beginning of this note.
Northcote-Trevelyan, and Haldane
Despite all the pressure for change (see the second note in this series), the UK civil service retains many of the characteristics of the service that was created as a result of the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report on the organisation of the Permanent Civil Service. Interestingly, the need for reform then was driven by circumstances which have immediate resonance today:
'The great and increasing accumulation of public business, and the consequent pressure on the Government'.
The result was a civil service appointed on merit through open competition, rather than patronage, with the following core values:
- Objectivity and
- Impartiality - including political impartiality.
The next major set of reforms came about as a result of the 1918 Haldane Report, published at the end of the First World War. Haldane recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The Report's impact came through two closely-linked ideas:
- Government required investigation and thought in all departments to do its job well: "continuous acquisition of knowledge and the prosecution of research" were needed "to furnish a proper basis for policy". Gone were the days when government bills and decisions could rely on the expertise of ministers, MPs and outside opinion. Ministers could not provide an investigative and thoughtful government on their own. Neither could civil servants, but a partnership between both could.
- The partnership must be extended, however, from the cluster of officials round a minister, typical of 19th century government, to embrace whole departments as the repositories of relevant knowledge and opinion. Haldane did not spell out how such investigation and thought were to be developed, except to recommend they should be based on a split of functions between government departments which essentially has continued to this day.
The relationship between civil servants and Ministers thus became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officals providing expertise.
Managerial and Efficiency Reforms, beginning with Fulton
The demands created by the 1939-45 Second World War required substantial change in the civil service, and within Government more generally, including the employment of large numbers of strong characters and experts who would otherwise have remained outside government. This trend was, however, put into reverse after the war although the experience no doubt informed those who in due course wrote the the 1968 Fulton Report which identified the following weaknesses in the Civil Service:
- It was too much based on the philosophy of the 'generalist' or 'all-rounder'.
- Scientists, engineers and other specialists were not being given the responsibilities, opportunities and authority they should have.
- There were too few skilled managers.
- There was not enough contact between the service and the community it serves.
- There was inadequate personnel management and career planning.
The report was taken seriously and led to significant change within the civil service, though not to the fundamental - and arguably elitist - Westminster/Haldane Model of government.
Another 18 years passed before the pace of reform quickened - or at least the rate of report writing certainly did! But there was no great change in the service's fundamental culture or characteristics. The Thatcher Government concentrated on reforming the economy, and institutions outside government, and on improving the management of government. The New Labour Government, elected in 1997, showed equal devotion to the Westminster/Haldane model. But both governments sought to make significant managerial and efficiency improvements. The following is a list of the key (mainly managerial) civil service reform documents.
- The Financial Management Initiative (1986) sought improvements in the allocation, management and control of resources.
- Improving Management in Government: the Next Steps (1988) announced that much of the executive work of Government was to be devolved to agencies.
- The 1994 'Continuity and Change' consultative White Paper and the 1995 'Taking Forward Continuity and Change' decision document led to:
- the delegation of further management flexibility and freedoms, including delegation of pay and grading decisions, to individual departments
- the establishment of the Senior Civil Service, and greater use of recruitment from outside the civil service ('open recruiting') and more flexible remuneration arrangements at senior levels.
- the promulgation of the Civil Service Code, and
- an enhanced role for the Civil Service Commissioners in recruitment and selection on merit.
- 'Modernising Government' (1999) had a strong civil service reform element. Indeed, the then Head of the Civil Service told the Prime Minister that he and his Management Board 'pledged themselves personally to drive forward a new agenda' including:-
- Stronger leadership
- Better business planning
- Sharper performance management
- A Service more open to people and ideas, and which brings on talent, and
- A better deal for staff.
- 'Civil Service Reform: Delivery and Values' was published in 2004. It was an insubstantial document promising greater emphasis on 'delivery' without any clear explanation of how this was to be achieved. The Gershon and Lyons reports, published around the same time, had a much harder edge, promising significant reductions in civil service numbers - especially those employed in London and the South-east.
- 'Putting the Frontline First', published in 2009, contained little more than a series of cost-cutting measures.
- It is early days, but it looks as though the same criticism can be levelled at the Coalition Government's 2011 announcements of 'intense change' which will lead to a much smaller, flatter, and less hierarchical organisation. But this is apparently to be achieved without a plan or blueprint.
I cannot improve on Oxford Professor Christopher Hood's commentary on what he calls the 'Civil Service Reform Syndrome':
"We have seen this movie before - albeit with a slightly different plot-line - with a rash of other attempts to fix up the bureaucracy, with the same pattern of hype from the centre, selective filtering at the extremities and political attention deficit syndrome that works against any follow-through and continuity. It is the pattern we have seen with ideas like
- total quality management,
- red tape bonfires,
- the Citizens Charter
- 'better consultation',
- risk management,
- evidence-based policy and
- 'joined-up policy-making', and now
- service delivery.
Such initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, leaving behind tombstones of varying size and style."
Since Professor Hood wrote this, the following initiatives could be added to his list:
- Professional Skills for Government
- Departmental Capability Reviews
- Citizens Juries
What Causes this Syndrome?
There is no organised resistance to change. None of these initiatives - or any of the so-caled reform programmes since 'Haldane' - threaten the fundamental culture of the civil service. But it is genuinely difficult to manage serious change in any organisation, let alone one so large, complex and federal as the civil service.
The first big problem is that no-one can be put in charge:- The Head of the Civil Service has too much else to do, but none of his Permanent Secretary colleagues are likely to take much notice of anyone else.
The other big problem is that - as every business school will tell you - you cannot change just one element of an organisation at a time. One expert defined 'the 5 Cs':- the five fundamental elements of any organisation, none of which can be changed without simultaneously causing change in the others:
- Capacity, i.e. resources, and in particular staff numbers;
- Capability (or Competence), i.e. staff skills, training, experience and motivation;
- Communications, including not only communications whilst the change programme is being implemented, but also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented;
- Culture, new relationships, attitudes to innovation, reward structures etc.;
- Constitution, i.e. organisational structure, reporting lines etc.
The civil service tries its best, and you can see various attempts, over the years, to bring about change in most of the above areas. But the attempts are essentially uncoordinated so that, for instance, Gershon's drive to refocus effort into the front line happens at the same time as tight pay settlements and a decision that senior civil servants should move even more frequently between jobs. There is no doubt that today's civil service is better, in many ways, than its predecessors. But it could be so much better still - especially when it comes to policy-making, where it arguably performs less well than in previous generations.
Sir Michael Bichard makes the same point:
"To improve efficiency levels in the service, the government needs to look at how civil servants' work should be done and how the service as a whole is structured. Different departments develop initiatives in isolation. There have been too many false starts, too many initiatives that don't come together as a coherent change programme. And it is this incoherent approach that leaves civil servants demoralised and confused."