Fit for purpose

Whitehall reform has been put in the “too difficult” pile by successive governments. Politicians have tried to circumvent Civil Service inefficiency and rigidity rather than tackling it head on – resulting in many programmes being caught in the mire when Ministers pull the levers but nothing happens. Attempts to introduce greater democratic control have resulted in rows about independence, which have caused the government to back off. This has been a mistake. In order to achieve significant change in social mobility, public services and economic performance, future governments must take Whitehall reform off the back burner and make it happen first.

The systemic weaknesses in Whitehall have built up over the years and are now of critical proportions. The Government’s own Capability Reviews into the performance of individual departments have revealed in the phrase that John Reid applied to the Home Offi ce in 2006, that the Whitehall machine is not “fit for purpose”. The Home Office’s accounts have not been qualified for the last two years.

The reasons for this are entrenched – the culture and structure of Whitehall rewards risk avoidance and punishes innovation. One public sector consultant interviewed for this report said that the motto of the Civil Service should be “consent and evade”; others spoke of an absence of “moral courage”. Whitehall is not accountable – success or failure seems to have little or no consequence for departments. It displays inadequate performance management. It is weak at implementation.

This is because the Civil Service hides behind the veil of “independence”. This is a myth – the Senior Civil Service is already highly politicised. Other countries have recognised that independence is no longer a valid concept and that transparency and accountability are key to successful organisations. In peer group countries – including France, Australia and Canada – Ministers appoint senior civil servants. Australia, for example moved away from the British model to their new approach in 2004 which has improved performance.

The report makes the following recommendations to bring Britain’s Civil Service into line with international best practice:

Democratic accountability provides the best means to hold senior civil servants to account. Democratically elected politicians should have the power to appoint senior civil servants.

The doctrine of Ministerial responsibility should be abolished. It not only shields officials from taking personal responsibility for their actions but also draws Ministers into the process of delivery. Instead, Ministers should be responsible for the strategic direction of policy and its communication. Officials should be personally responsible for the construction of policy and the use of resources.

All Civil Service vacancies should be advertised openly. Discrimination in favour of “internal” over “external” candidates and the system of grades should be abolished. Recruitment led by individual line managers should supersede centrally approved appointments; what matters is the quality and cost of appointees. Reform of this kind would see a much greater fl ow of personnel between the private, voluntary and public sectors, and the recruitment of officials with direct experience in the policy areas that they cover.

Civil servants need to act as if their every decision is open to scrutiny. Select Committees should call a much greater range of officials to give evidence.

All political parties should make Civil Service reform a reality of their shared commitment to localism. At present Whitehall too often claims responsibility for parts of national life – healthcare, education, policing and so on – for which it is simply too remote to be the most effective change agent.

Whitehall reform should be part of the manifesto of a renewed Labour Government or an incoming Conservative or coalition government, and should be one of its first actions. On the one hand, Whitehall reform is a precondition for success in other areas. On the other, vested interests will act to oppose reform. Any government that deploys its political capital early, when it is at its strongest, is more likely to achieve success.