Civil Service Reform 7

This is the seventh in a series of notes which provide more detail about, and comment on, the many attempts – some successful, most not – to ‘reform’ the UK Civil Service. It focuses on the Coalition Government’s June 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan - an intriguing document which:

  • suggested far reaching changes in the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and senior officials, and
  • announced some sensible plans which – if implemented – would significantly improve the effectiveness of the present civil service machine.

The plan was accompanied by a background document (The Context for Civil Service Reform 2012) which contained some interesting explanations and data:.

The plan in effect offered more power to senior officials. In particular they would in future be asked to 'sign off of implementation plans ... and Cabinet Committee papers' and 'where proposals relate to significant public expenditure or are likely to result in a major project, the chair of the relevant Cabinet committee may ask the relevant [officials] to confirm that ... the proposed action is in line with their duties - including ... a comment on their feasibility.' But a consequence of this new ability to refuse to implement ill-thought through proposals would be greater accountability for the delivery of programs which they had accepted as feasible.

But would it happen? The analysis was pretty weak, the change/programme manager had yet to be appointed; he or she would report to current Permanent Secretaries who were likely to be an obstacle to some of the changes; and the most challenging ‘actions’ lacked measurable targets and timescales.

The following notes go into more detail, dealing with

1. The more far-reaching proposals,
2. Other proposed changes, and ..
3. Would reform happen?

1. The More Far-Reaching Proposals

  • ‘Departmental Boards will hold executives to account for how they deliver … projects and programmes’.
  • ‘Ministers … need to be more selective about what policy makers spend their time on, and get better at stopping areas of work which are no longer a priority.’
  • ‘Departments are headed by a Secretary of State and a Permanent Secretary who reports to him or her. This dual leadership requires clarity over responsibilities and reporting lines. Accountability for implementation needs to be sharpened.’
  • ‘Government’s past performance on major projects has been poor … Much of this failure has been because policy gets announced before implementation has been fully thought through … Ministers … need to be aware of the impact of announcing too much detail before implementation has been fully thought through.’
  • ‘Senior [programme managers] often move too frequently, leaving mid-way through a project.’
  • ‘… the House of Lords Constitutional Committee has launched an inquiry on accountability …the Government will look at other models … and will evaluate … the New Zealand model … in which there is a clear relationship between Ministers – who set clear outcomes – and heads of Departments – who are accountable for delivering them.’
  • ‘In the meantime [we will] sharpen and make more transparent he responsibility of Accounting Officers, including for ensuring effective implementation of major projects and programmes, by requiring explicit Accounting Officer sign off of implementation plans … and Cabinet Committee papers; and establishing the expectation that former Accounting Officers return to give evidence to Select Committees …’
  • ‘… where proposals relate to significant public expenditure or are likely to result in a major project, the chair of the relevant Cabinet committee may ask the relevant Accounting Officers to confirm that … the proposed action is in line with their duties - including … a comment on their feasibility.’
  • ‘We will … consult the Civil Service Commission on how the role of the Secretary of State can be strengthened in the recruitment process of Permanent Secretaries.’
  • ‘… where [particular] expertise does not exist in the Department, … Ministers should be able to ask their Permanent Secretaries to appoint a very limited number of senior officials , for specified and time-limited … roles.

Taken together, these proposals could (and some would say should) lead to a much healthier and more effective relationship between Parliament, Ministers and senior officials. Even if the New Zealand model is not followed, senior officials in general, and Permanent Secretaries in particular, will be expected to refuse to sign off plans where implementation has not been fully thought through, or which are over optimistic, or not properly costed etc. And Select Committees could/should have a more powerful policing role.

There must be some concern at the suggestion that Cabinet Ministers will in future play a more influential in the appointment of their Permanent Secretaries. Is this the first step in the politicisation of the UK civil service? On the other hand, surely the senior partner in the proposed ‘dual leadership’ must be allowed a voice in the appointment of his co-leader? And is it anyway such a big change? Ministers have always had a say in such appointments. What they were not given was a free hand to select their own shortlist.

2. Other Proposed Changes

The document contained the clear message that Minsters want to be supported by senior staff with different skills, experience and attitudes. As the Prime Minster says in his foreword : ‘we need to change the way in which government works. Put simply, it needs to be sharper and quicker. We need the whole machine to be more agile, more focused on delivery and getting results.’

The document itself summarises the issue as follows:

‘[The civil service] culture can be cautious and slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change. This can be deeply frustrating for civil servants themselves, who want to get on and do their jobs the best way they can, and many have raised these concerns through Tell Us How. This culture can make it difficult for the Government to adapt swiftly to the needs of the day. There are too few incentives for civil servants to challenge the status quo, or to seek out and implement cost savings or service improvements. No one’s career suffers from persisting with an inefficient status quo, while those who innovate can feel like they are putting their future at risk.

Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies, and one that operates in a political, parliamentary and media environment that seizes on mistakes but seldom champions operational success. It is vital to engage and empower staff, and to create a dynamic and flexible career path. Staff views have highlighted the importance of performance management, where managers encourage and reward good performance, while dealing rigorously with poor performers.’

The document then went on, perfectly correctly, to say that the civil service needs to do less centrally and needs to get better at commissioning more from outside. In particular, the quality of policy making could be improved, and better use made of outside expertise. And no-one could argue with the long list of practical action points including a new digital strategy, greater use of shared services, ensuring staff have appropriate skills and expertise, much better performance management etc. etc.

The training/development section was a mixed bag. The National School had already been closed down, Professional Skills in Government was being axed without explanation, to be replaced by a Capabilities Plan, yet to be drafted and, ‘for the first time … active corporate management of current and future leadership from Fast Stream through to future Permanent Secretaries’ – which didn’t sound like good news for late developers and specialists. But the overall tone was supportive of a stronger emphasis on development, and greater interchange and interaction with the private sector, all of which is positive.

And there were hints that senior officials would be allowed to stay in post longer, which hopefully means the end of the ridiculous rule that everyone must move on within four years, thus ensuring that Ministers are currently supported by officials who have on average spent less than two years in their job – which does not exactly ensure sound evidence- and experience-based advice.

3. Will Reform Happen?

The first set of proposals, if implemented, will require politicians to hold back on announcing exciting proposals and will require civil servants to block politicians’ manifesto promises unless the civil service thinks the plans are feasible etc. (The tension between the two is often caused (a) by the gap between policy aspiration and the implementation plan, and (b) by Ministers tendency to will the ends without willing the means - or even understanding the need for them).

Put more strongly, the first set of proposals require senior officials to be willing to stand up to senior Ministers - which is what they should have been doing anyway and which many of them have failed to do, all too often, in recent years. But I cannot see either set of protagonists changing their behaviour any time soon. And it is interesting, to say the least, that the accompanying press notice mentions six ‘key actions’ but none of them fall within this first set of far-reaching proposals. If constitutional change is to happen, it is clearly going to happen quite slowly and quietly.

The second set of proposals will happen to the extent that they are a continuation of what is happening now, especially greater use of the web and so on. But the most senior and influential officials have been promoted and chosen because of their diplomatic ability and their excellence at avoiding confrontation – including with Ministers, contractors or close colleagues. It is currently powerful senior staff who are the most ‘slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change’. They inevitably assess and promote in their own image, and so their assessment of the performance of colleagues is therefore often quite different to the views of Ministers. Permanent Secretaries do not like officials who are ‘sharp’ or ‘quick’. They remember mistakes for years – or for whole careers. They are not suddenly – or ever – going to start giving good marks to a quite different set of officials.

But even putting these doubts on one side, there must be severe doubts about the structure of what by any measure is a far-reaching change programme. To begin with, I could not see a compelling vision that (a) could be easily understood and (b) could be endlessly repeated until everyone ‘gets it’. And although the early part of the document contained some measurable targets (‘create five centres for transactional services (finance etc.) by 2014’), the majority of its targets are pretty soft (’publish plans’, ‘ensure staff have [appropriate] skills’, ‘significantly reduce … ’, ‘produce a … plan’, ‘make it easier’) and it will be quite impossible for anyone to say whether the change programme has failed.

It is also worrying that ownership of the programme is pretty diffuse. The key appointment is mentioned right at the end of the relevant text and it seems pretty clear that (s)he will have far too many bosses, and probably very little power to get Ministers or Permanent Secretaries to change their behaviour:

‘… the Minister for the Cabinet Office has direct Ministerial responsibility for the programme. He will oversee the implementation of the Plan, chairing a monthly Reform Board including the Government’s Lead Non-Executive board member and other senior Non-Executives. The Head of the Civil Service, Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretaries will be accountable for its delivery through the Civil Service Board. Within Departments, Boards bring together the political and official leadership with senior Non-Executives from outside the public sector, and will provide robust scrutiny and challenge on departmental progress in implementing these reforms. Any concerns will feed into the monthly Reform Board meetings through the Lead Non-Executives network. We are in the process of appointing a Director General of Civil Service Reform, who will be responsible for implementing the reform actions.’

More generally, the document was strong on slogans (‘more of” this, ‘strengthened’ that) but pretty weak on detail, evidence and analysis. There was no review of current good practice, nor of how it might be spread more widely. And Francis Maude admitted at an IfG seminar that his officials had not (yet) studied the Australian and New Zealand models in any detail. It would also have been helpful to have a perceptive analysis of why some reforms have worked well in the past, and others have not1. And it would have done no harm to recognise the tensions and contradictions that are inevitable in any change programme of this nature:

  • ‘pace’ v. the need to consult and think through implementation issues
  • a ‘unified civil service’ v. creativity and local flexibility and discretion.

Note: It is interesting to compare this plan with Lord Rayner's change programme back in the 1980s. Lord Rayner worked with the organisation and gave staff at the implementation level the credit for knowing what they were talking about, and the cover they needed to make changes. Next Steps happened because it was driven through by a strong project team with top level support, and gave people delegated authority to get on with things.

Ministers' Speeches

Publication of the Reform Plan was followed by two speeches by Cabinet Office Ministers.

The first was a speech by Oliver Letwin. It was an eloquent defence of the important role of the generalist or administrative civil servant. Ex-Permanent Secretary Richard Mottram commented afterwards that the speech would have been ridiculed if it had been delivered by a senior official as the administrative civil service had been "under sustained attack" for many years. Most commentators had (falsely) come to equate 'generalist' with 'amateur'.

Mr Letwin's boss, Francis Maude, spoke on 2 October 2012. His key messages were as follows:

  • He was very concerned that public sector productivity has not improved in recent years, whereas private service sector productivity had improved by 30%.
  • The aim, therefore, was to improve the productivity of the civil service by driving cost out, hence the current reduction in civil service numbers. Ministers want the civil service to be 'smaller, flatter and more digital'.
    • Comment: This seems a very crude approach to improving productivity. There was little or no sign, in Mr Maude's speech nor the earlier Reform Plan, that Ministers recognised that cost could and should be driven out to a greater extent in some areas than in others, nor was there anything approaching an analysis, in the speech or the plan, of the ways in which working methods might first be improved so as to facilitate productivity improvements.
  • Another aim is to achieve a 'loose-tight balance. The 'loose' means breaking down local silos and encouraging innovation so the pubic servants work effectively together for the benefit of their local communities. The tight means controlling some things 'militantly' from the centre, including cash, big projects, property, ICT infrastructure (to ensure interoperability), HR operating standards, and the procurement of goods and services.
    • Comment: This is a very different approach than that taken by Ministers in the Thatcher government who instinctively disliked big centralised government and thought that each department ought to develop e.g. procurement and HR/pay strategies that suited its individual needs. They in particular disliked centralised control and procurement - hence the closure of e.g. the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency and HM Stationery Office. Also, it was interesting to note that Mr Maude's speech was delivered at around the same time of come press criticism (probably from Departmental Ministers) that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was getting too involved (i.e was too critical of) plans to make big changes to the benefits system, and was also too heavily involved in organising the government's reaction to the proposed merger of BAe and EADS.
  • There will be better management information, collected on a more consistent basis, both across departments and from year to year.
    • Comment: Lots of academics and others will have cheered when they heard this proposal. It has been very difficult to track e.g. administrative cost over time and/or benchmark between departments.
  • The result of the reforms should be that working in the civil service should be more satisfying and more fun.
  • Mr Maude's most headline-generating comment (leaked in advance to newspapers) was that Ministers "too often found that the decisions they made do not get implemented", and "there have been cases where Permanent Secretaries have blocked agreed policies from going ahead.
    • Comment: But he failed to give examples, even in response to subsequent written and Freedom of Information requests, suggesting that the supposed offences were perhaps rather less clear cut than Mr Maude had said.
  • Mr Maude's most far reaching proposal was that Permanent Secretaries (Heads of Departments) would have clear objectives which would be agreed by Ministers and the Prime Minister and then published, and against which they could be held accountable and appraised.
    • Comment: This last proposal is clearly consistent with the Reform Plan, 'though it will be fascinating to read the objectives when they are published. Will they be measurable? Will the Home Office Permanent Secretary be responsible for cutting the crime rate? If so, how would Ministers react if the Perm Sec were to announce that (s)he intended to achieve this objective by liberalising the drugs regime so that addicts no longer had to mug, burgle and steal so as to fund their addiction? They would no doubt ensure that another objective was to reduce the use of drugs - whereupon the Permanent Secretary would immediately have conflicting objectives. In practice, there is a real danger that the objectives will be set at a lower, fuzzier level, and so will make little difference in the real world.

    • A currently serving and well respected civil servant described the problem in this way: 'The point that I worry about is that I might be held accountable for what is not within my power to control - either a situation where there are simply too many variables to be within my control (eg. reduce crime) or where Ministers take decisions in such a way that my hands are tied but I am 'accountable' - facing the hideous alternatives of looking ineffective or dropping my Minister in it. ... I think there is a real risk that in this talk of accountability the potentially profound change in the relationship between Ministers and officials is being ignored. Either Ministers need to give up a significant element of power and control or they need to be prepared to be dropped in it by their civil servants in public - fudging this will cause a lot more trouble than I think anyone is prepared to grasp right now - and actually the potential change to the way the entire civil service operates being envisaged here is either being missed or ignored.'

Better Government Initiative's 'Good Government - Mid Term Review'.

The Better Government Initiative released its second report in November 2012. As the authors were all ex-very senior civil servants, it contained many sensible recommendations concerning better policy making, how to create a more effective coalition government and so on. In particular: When a coalition is formed enough time should be allowed, as is usual in many nations, for the coalition agreement to be constructed on a sound basis. Civil service advice should be available throughout the negotiations and The Queen's Speech should be delayed until a firm agreement on the legislative programme, based on a thorough understanding of the issues, has been reached.

They also drew attention to widespread concerns that the UK civil service has lost much key talent and is moving the rest around far too quickly: An immediate practical concern is that the rate of turnover in some parts of the civil service among the senior grades is now at unsustainable levels; in the Treasury it has reached an annual rate of about 30 per cent. This leaves many departments with a serious deficit in the knowledge and skills gained over the years by operational experience and careful succession planning. A coherent strategy for the recruitment and training of the civil service workforce is urgently required.

But their only reaction to the recent Civil Service Reform Plan was to express concern about Ministerial involvement in senior appointments (which is anyway not that new): We look to the Civil Service Commission to view with considerable caution the proposals in the Civil Service Reform Plan on Ministerial involvement in civil service appointments bearing in mind the dangers of cronyism and party-political bias that could arise in a return to appointment by patronage.

The report completely ignored the plan's more far-reaching suggestions that would involve senior officials becoming more accountable. There was certainly no sign that the authors recognised the need for significant change in the current near-dysfunctional triangular relationship between Parliament, Ministers and officials. And - despite its virtues - I fear that the report will have made very little impact whatsoever on the current Government, or on the authors' successors at the top of the civil service.

Launching the report at a stimulating but very elderly-male-dominated event, ex-Permanent Secretary Richard Mottram suggested that the Initiative had identified six factors that were important to good decision-making on government policy:

  • clear goals
  • structures fit for purpose
  • values which supported the goals
  • a coherent match between resources and tasks
  • the right knowledge and experience in staff
  • the capability to generate the right information and meet accountability requirements

He drew out 5 themes from the new report:

  • collective decision making was important
    the quality of decision making needed to be adequately sustained and supported
    there needed to be more not less challenge
    accountability and responsibility needed to be sharpened but doing that through rigid contracts might not help
    the people involved needed not only to have the right knowledge and experience but they needed to have sufficient continuity in post to be able to be effective. He pointed to concerns about cuts, turnover and Ministerial intervention over appointments

At the same event, ex-Cabinet Minister Stephen Dorrell made probably the most interesting comments in which he drew out 3 themes:

  • Inadequate definition of goals and exploration of the risks of failure: He suggested that too often new government policies did not define the problem they were supposed to be fixing. Good policies should be rifle shots aimed at a target. Blunderbuss efforts were not helpful. Change that delivered results was almost always incremental, but it needed to be fast enough to show delivery to stakeholders.
  • Parliamentary process: He suggested proper challenge needed to be mounted in parliament through a revitalised House of Lords which should make it difficult to change the law.
  • Proper relations between Ministers, civil servants, Special Advisers and experts: Ministers needed to recognise that their key role would tend to be to choose the least bad from a number of unattractive options to deal with difficult challenges. They needed to take responsibility for the decision on the basis of good options developed by civil servants. These needed to draw out possible negative impacts and flaws.

The next, the eighth note in this series focuses on the West Coast Main Line shambles and associated activity.

Martin Stanley

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