The phrase civil service reform is used in two quite distinct ways. It is often used by politicians and senior officials as short-hand for efforts to improve the management, efficiency and effectiveness of the c.400,000 civil servants who work around the UK – paying benefits, protecting our borders, collecting taxes and so on. But this is a misuse of the word ‘reform’, which surely suggests more fundamental change in the way in which the civil service behaves and operates, which is in turn deeply bound up in its structure, its culture and the incentives of its leaders in ‘Whitehall’.
The most recent report that dealt with fundamental civil service reform was published as long ago as 1918. The Haldane Report was unambiguously aimed at improving the effectiveness of government policy-making, and led to fundamental changes affecting policy makers and other senior officials. Now, nearly 100 years on, the quality of policy making, and support for Ministers more generally, is generally reckoned to be 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, by introducing and then strengthening departmental boards, etc.) but there has been no serious review of the fundamental relationship between Parliament, Ministers and civil servants. This part of this website discusses these question, and has three levels, so you can dig as deep – or not – as you wish.
- This introduction summarises the key issues and arguments.
- There are eight pages that look at each of the issues and arguments in greater detail.
- And then there is a very detailed history from the 1850s right up to the present date.
To begin at the beginning …
In the absence of fundamental reform, 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 four core values: Integrity, Honesty, 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 officials providing expertise.
All the key reports and initiatives since 1918 have focused on management and efficiency. Even the far-reaching 1968 Fulton Report looked only at the structure, recruitment, management and training of the civil service. Indeed, 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 focused 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 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.
As a result, 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 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', 2009 - 'Gershon' and 'Lyons' - 'Putting the Front Line First') have achieved much less than they might have done, which is why the initiatives come along so frequently.
One perhaps inevitable weakness is that it has proved hard to set public, measurable objectives for senior officials in general, and for Permanent Secretaries in particular. Follow this link to read a short discussion of this issue.
The latest (2012) Civil Service Reform Program is driven by the need to cut the number of civil servants as part of the post-2010 austerity drive. This makes the civil service machine look more efficient, but there can be a trade off in terms of poorer customer service, less well-informed advice to Ministers, and so on. There are some signs that this has become a problem - see Civil Service Reform Detailed Note 7 et seq.
A more detailed note on managerial and efficiency reforms is here, and a Colin Talbot's very readable brief history of performance measurement is here. I also recommend this separate commentary which describes Civil Service Reform Syndrome and explains why management/efficiency reform programs are too often set up to fail.
But - returning to the subject of 'proper' civil service reform - critics assert that the traditional Whitehall/Westminster Model of government is unsuitable for the modern world. Yes, Minister’s author Sir Anthony Jay’s summarised the argument rather nicely on the Today Program on 6 April 2012: ‘We have a really rather silly system. If you look at any big corporation you will find that the people at the top are concerned about the product and they are concerned about the market. They are concerned about what they produce and sell, and they are concerned about the people that they are selling it to. But in politics we divide it up. We have a lot of people who are only concerned about what they are doing and what they are making and another lot who are really concerned about very little except marketing and getting public approval.’
Is it indeed possible to build a more detailed case for government/civil service reform. Those that seek to do so use three main arguments.
First, they point to the substantial changes that have taken place in British government and society since 1918 – globalisation, joining the European Union, devolution, the growth of the regulatory state, the decline of deference, the greatly increased power of the media, 24/7 social media, and so on. Today’s politicians are relatively powerless compared with their predecessors 100 years ago. Further detail is here.
Second, critics point to a succession of government ‘blunders in recent years, including the Poll Tax, the Child Support Agency, our joining and leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and a wide and very expensive range of disastrous IT projects. Further detail is at here.
Note that these first two arguments suggest the need to reexamine the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and officials.
The third argument points to weaknesses in the Civil Service itself. Senior Civil Servants too often appear to be in a world of their own, out of touch, poor managers, defensive, occasionally incompetent, and far too keen to act as Ministers’ courtiers, rather than speaking truth to power. The full charge sheet is here.
It is less clear what sort of change would improve the performance of the government machine. Prime Ministers have tried greater centralisation of power, target setting, more devolution, and giving more power to departmental boards and Special Advisers. But none of these seem to have made much difference. Further detail is here.
It is nevertheless possible to imagine some ways in which real reform might be brought about. Politicisation of the upper reaches of the Civil Service might make a difference. Or Ministers might no longer be held personally responsible for all the key decisions taken by their departments, but instead responsible mainly for establishing the Government’s strategy, leaving officials responsible and accountable for implementation. There is a more detailed discussion here, including an explanation of what stops these reforms from happening – and the main culprit is not the Civil Service, but politicians themselves.