This note summarises developments in 2022.
A New Statutory Role for the Civil Service?
The Institute for Government (IfG) published the above-named (without the ?) and interesting paper in March 2022. You can read it here. Its premise and argument were nicely summarised in its first few paragraphs:
The civil service is central to government in the UK. Civil servants advise ministers, implement the government’s policies and run many of its services. The civil service has evolved continually since its establishment, in semi-recognisable form, in the 1850s, but without a single clear statement of its role, definition, purpose, remit, leadership, governance or accountability.
This lack of a clear identity, or defined responsibilities, is one of the obstacles to the UK government becoming more effective. Nobody, including the prime minister or the head of the civil service, has the necessary authority and available time required to lead and manage the civil service. Instead, often conflicting responsibilities are distributed between ministers, senior civil servants at the centre of government and departmental permanent secretaries. Policy co-ordination and implementation suffer because of inconsistencies between departments. The Cabinet Office and Treasury cannot accurately track the delivery of key priorities. The long-term capability and resources of the state are not well managed and the constitution is poorly interpreted. Risk management is poor with personal responsibilities for owning risks too diffuse. And ill-defined accountability within the civil service, and between ministers and officials, leads to unnecessary mistakes followed by blame games, preventing important lessons from being learned.
This paper proposes a new statutory role for the civil service to address these problems. It would act as a statement of the civil service’s permanence, its values, its objectives and how – at the highest level – it should be run and held to account. It would define the civil service’s position in government and its operation and set out a governance structure that improves accountability while at the same time reinforcing and strengthening its legitimacy.
A new role set out in statute would not address every problem in UK government and our proposals are not comprehensive or the final word on the subject. But by setting out for the first time the operational sphere of responsibility of the civil service and how it should work, the partnership between ministers and civil servants – upon which government depends – can be strengthened and the long-term standing of the civil service improved.
Better Policy Making
The IfG also published the above-named report in March 2022. It noted that: 'Of course, effective policies require - above all - ministers with good judgment and a clear idea of what they want to achieve. And policy making is not a process with a single ‘right’ answer – it is messy and often the skill is in the consensus-building and compromise needed to get things done.' Having said this, the report then made a number of sensible recommendations to address 'five main problems':
- Short-termism: the organisation of government is not set up to secure good long-term outcomes from policy, with ministers and officials constantly moving between departments and drawn to focus new and short-term initiatives, and immediate results.
- A lack of policy knowledge: an outdated model of ‘generalist’ policy civil servants discourages officials from staying in post long enough to develop sufficient knowledge and experience, or relationships with internal and external experts.
- Poor implementation: project management has often been considered the main weakness of UK government, but policy failures often stem from the people developing policies having a weak grasp of implementation and not consulting those involved in delivery. And similarly those teams working on implementation not having enough knowledge of the relevant policy area, while having too many changes of membership and leadership.
- Poor cross-government working: co-ordination of cross-government policy initiatives is often ineffective, and ministers and officials work in departmental silos.
- Whitehall parochialism: central government is too closed off from the experiences of the public, as well as from expertise held outside government and in other countries.
Leadership College for Government
The Government announced its intention in February 2022 'to reform leadership and management training for civil and public servants, establishing a new Leadership College for Government'. (emphasis added)
Paul Dacre and Sarah Healey
The right wing printed press were never great fans of the civil service but February 2022's Private Eye reported a particularly vile and unwarranted attack - see image on the right.