UK Politics

Viewpoints: The civil service and reform

Whitehall sign

The government is seeking to shake up the civil service, with reports surfacing of strained relations between ministers and officials and complaints that some mandarins are blocking policy.

Unions say staff face unprecedented cutbacks, with morale under pressure and the civil service's historic neutrality threatened. Are things really that bad, and what are the prospects for civil service reform? Here is a range of viewpoints:

Nick Herbert, former minister of policing and criminal justice

"Whitehall Wars" makes for a good headline but a bad debate. I believe that the time has come to look again at our system of administration and consider the case for more radical reform.

But I think it's wrong to see this issue as an attack on the civil service. Too often, important discussion about the performance of public services descends into this kind of debate - we must be able to discuss how Whitehall works without it immediately being interpreted as a declaration of hostilities.

First, there are questions of accountability. Who, outside Whitehall, would agree to head an organisation where they would be accountable for everything but directly control nothing?

And what is the principal role of the civil service? Gus O'Donnell told me that it was to challenge ministers. I think challenge is healthy in any organisation. But shouldn't the first role of the civil service be to support the elected government to deliver?

Second, the support for ministers needs to be re-examined. Ministers face challenges and pressures unlike anything experienced by their predecessors, yet ministerial support is weaker than in the past.

For too long we have been trapped by a fear about the role of special advisers. I certainly don't advocate expanding the number of spin doctors. But I do think there is a case to allow ministers to appoint more expert and other advisers to their teams, from inside and out of Whitehall.

Third, when so many government programmes rely on commissioning, a weakness in commercial skills can't be dismissed. A wider debate is needed about how to ensure that the brightest and best are drawn into Whitehall.

Fourth, the departmental structure in Whitehall is essentially an historic legacy. But the silos are a problem. I was astonished to discover how much energy is dissipated through disagreement and challenge between departments, when what we need to fix long term problems is coherence of policy.

I worked with some fine officials in government, and I was struck that many of them seemed as keen to discuss ideas for change as I was. I believe a more open system, one in which talented individuals could more easily move in and out of the civil service, would be very attractive to able officials.

But before we arrive at solutions, we need a careful analysis of the administrative challenges faced by a modern government, including the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

Lord Bichard, former permanent secretary

Sadly the current debate about the civil service largely misses the point by focussing almost solely on the relationship between politicians and officials and whether it is at an all time low.

That relationship will always pass through good and bad times and both sides always need to address difficulties when they occur. But whatever the state of that relationship the real concern should be that the service is no longer fit for purpose for a modern society because:

  1. It has been unable to find ways of working across departmental boundaries and with other sectors to address today's big challenges, none of which fit neatly into the current silos.
  2. It remains too risk averse and insufficiently innovative during a time of great change which demands creative solutions.
  3. It lacks some of the key skills needed to be successful, not least commissioning, procurement and service design.
  4. It is too focused on response rather than prevention and fails to reduce demand and therefore cost.
  5. It remains preoccupied with process to the neglect of outcomes.
  6. It is centralised, hierarchical and riddled with status.

When will the media, the chattering classes and political leaders address these fundamental flaws?

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union

The civil service, like any large organisation public or private, is constantly reforming and adapting to respond to new challenges.

The current government has tasked the civil service with delivering a radical reform agenda with significantly fewer resources. Already at its smallest size since the Second World War, the civil service is still only just over halfway through the job reduction programme planned to 2015, with further cuts to come beyond this date.

The debate on civil service reform needs to move on from the notion that the civil service is irretrievably dysfunctional or that reform only comes from ministers. Every day, managers at all levels in the service are innovating and reforming the way the service is organised and public services delivered.

There has always been tension in the relationship between civil servants and ministers.

High quality, evidence-based policy advice is often unwelcome when it doesn't chime with the philosophy of those proposing the policy but it is necessary, and competent ministers recognise this. Surrounding themselves with advisers, appointed for what they believe, rather than what they can do, may result in the phrase "Yes Minister" being heard more often, but it doesn't make for good government.

Ministers need to address the three 'Rs' of managing the civil service: reward, recognition and resources.

The denigration of civil servants combined with pay that's completely out of touch with the private sector, and staffing reductions in departments that simply do not reflect the demands of the reform agenda the government wants to enact - results in high staff turnover, low morale and a disengaged workforce - in other words, the antithesis of what the government needs and the public deserves.

Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government

At the Institute for Government we have identified serious inadequacies in Whitehall that need to be addressed by both ministers and the civil service.

Ministers have legitimate concerns about the quality of work for which they are held accountable, while civil servants often feel bruised by public and media criticism at a time of continuing sharp cutbacks and big re-organisations.

We have argued repeatedly that the civil service needs to reform. But as largescale reform continues in Whitehall it is counter-productive for politicians and civil servants to engage in mutual scapegoating based on half-truths and myths which ignore what is really happening.

The priority should be to make the system work more smoothly with greater clarity about respective roles in order to improve accountability and the running of projects, based on the realities of governing in the UK.

Politicians say they feel cut off from decision making in their departments so political support for them is crucial. The government should not apologise for increasing the number of special advisers in government to broaden the range of advice and bridge that gap between themselves and the civil servants.

Civil servants have to show they are adaptable and listening to ministers too, they should challenge decisions without fear of the consequences but know that the buck stops with ministers and ministers alone must make the final decision.

Our research shows that reform only works if it has the joint backing of political and civil service leaders and they must now be patient.

For reform to succeed it will require continued efforts by the civil service supported by consistent political backing from ministers. Above all a mutual respect for each other's challenges in these very testing times will go a long way.

Alan Downey, head of government and public sector at KPMG

Where "Yes, Minister" was once the phrase of choice we are now hearing discord, with both sides resorting to public criticism of the other. It may have been an option once, but it is now no longer possible to paper over the cracks as the latest spat between ministers and mandarins confirms that their relationship is at an all-time low.

There are some specific reasons for the latest breakdown: for example, it is clear that a 30% reduction in the number of senior civil servants has cut deep into Whitehall's capacity, capability and morale. Yet, the problems underlying the recent outbreak of verbal hostilities have been brewing for many years. The last government's relationship with Whitehall followed a similar pattern: after a honeymoon period ministers began to complain about obstructive behaviour and the difficulty of getting their policy intentions translated into practice.

The civil service may argue against tinkering with a constitutional relationship that dates back 160 years. But this is not change for its own sake and the arguments for breaking with the past are growing stronger by the day.

There are certainly big issues to be addressed: the independence and neutrality of the civil service; the role of political advisers; whether civil servants should be held publicly account for delivering results; ministerial involvement in the appointment of mandarins and the management of their performance.

In looking for a solution, the government would be well advised to cast the net widely. There may be lessons to be learned in the world of business, where it is common for chief executives to be appointed on fixed-term contracts and held personally accountable for achieving the results promised in their business plans.

Whatever the answer, it is increasingly clear that doing nothing is not an option. We need a robust and open debate about the options, and then we need to move quickly to implement the changes that will restore trust between politicians and civil servants.

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