The demands of 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 put into reverse after the war but the experience appears to have informed those who in due course wrote the 1968 Fulton Report which looked at the structure, recruitment, management and training of the civil service. (It is interesting to note that 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 with the Cabinet Office.)
The report 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.
But pay restraint together with a wide range of other concerns led to the first ever national civil service strikes in 1973, which in turn led to the Wider Issues Review whose report Civil Servants and Change was published in 1975.
- More detailed information about the report is here.
- The main text of the report is here.
- The Joint Statement by the National Whitley Council, List of Contents and Annexes are here.
The post-1979 Thatcher government then sought to make progress on two fronts, and the ‘New Labour’ Government, elected in 1997, continued to make significant managerial and efficiency improvements.
New Public Management ...
... is a somewhat vague phrase which essentially summarises efforts to introduce competition between different public agencies, and between public agencies and private firms, and so incentivises innovation, efficiency and good customer service. New public management accordingly treats beneficiaries of public services as customers, and citizens as shareholders. It has been most obviously applied in the health and education sectors, and through contracting out support services. These reforms – which were continued by all successor governments - are not dealt with in any detail in this website, although it is worth noting that many believe that insufficient effort was put into getting the civil service ready to manage this more competitive environment. This led to significant problems with many of the programs, and to excessive costs being incurred on contracted out services (especially IT) and on consultants who were brought in to help introduce competition.
Efficiency Initiatives: Separately, the Thatcher Government and its successors have focussed on improving the efficiency of the big, high-spending departments. Here, the existing civil service has been on more comfortable ground. It has considerable experience of delivering services on a large scale and in managing large numbers of staff across the UK. Senior officials accordingly reckon that they can steadily improve efficiency and customer service as long as politicians refrain from changing the rules – or at least don’t do so too often or too dramatically. There was considerable early success, including sharpened financial management and the establishment of separately managed 'Next Steps' Executive Agencies. Subsequent reform programs have also been essentially managerial, and have addressed subjects such as leadership, performance management, the role of the Senior Civil Service and improved delivery.
Lord Bancroft's Lecture, Whitehall and Management: A Retrospect, provides a thought-provoking and entertaining review of management reforms through to 1984.
Sir Geoffrey Holland praises the creation of Agencies, but offers a pretty scathing review of privatisation, market testing and contracting out, at pp 45-46 of his 1995 lecture "Alas! Sir Humphrey, I Knew Him Well".
Colin Talbot wrote a brief history of performance management in 2017.
The following is a list of the key managerial 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) led to much of the executive work of Government being devolved to Executive Agencies.
- Prime Minister John Major's Citizen's Charter, launched in 1991, was a well-meaning attempt to make public bodies more responsive to the needs of their customers. But it wasn't aimed mainly at the civil service, and was met with a good deal of coolness by senior officials. It may be that (rather like subsequent PM David Cameron's Big Society) it had not been sufficiently well-designed or well-planned in advance. Sadly, therefore, it ran out of steam pretty quickly.
- The 1993 Oughton Report led to some useful improvements in the management of (what became) the Senior Civil Service, although some of his recommendations were unwelcome and therefore ignored.
- 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.
- 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.
There is much more detail in these web pages. In particular, Detailed Notes 7 et seq look at the 2012 Reform Plan and the consequences of sharp reductions in staff numbers for the quality of customer service and the quality of advice for Ministers.
Detailed Note 17 includes an interesting (and scathing) 2017 IfG review of departmental priorities and Permanent Secretary objectives.
There is a nice tongue-in-cheek imagination of officials' response to efficiency initiatives here.
Here is a handy IfG summary of key performance initiatives:
And the IfG in 2018 published a fascinating summary of attempts to join up public services. Their interactive timeline shows the key national attempts to join up public services at a local level from 1997 to 2015. (Click on the image opposite to see a larger screen-shot. You might like to access the IFG website to access interactive detail, clicking on the circles to find out more about the individual initiatives, and related policies.)
The Chief Executive of the Civil Service proudly unveiled Success Profiles a little later in 2018 - a new approach to recruitment within and from outside the civil service. It was very worthy but arguably over-complex, reducing (or rather expanding) common sense into endless charts and detail. Here is one: (Further detail is here.)
I recommend this discussion of the capability of the civil service as of late 2017.