Whitehall’s stories of success (II)

14 February 2017

This article was first published in Reform’s 2017 Annual Conference brochure. To read more articles, click here

Reform of the civil service always seems to fall short of expectations. The Institute for Government noted in a 2014 report that each of their case studies of successful reform “end in failure of one sort or another. Most reform interventions have a shelf life and need to be reinvented – something that is rarely done well.” As a consequence, the civil service finds itself returning to the same issues time and again, but failing to bring lasting solutions to some of its most persistent challenges.

Why is this and what are the behaviours that can sustain meaningful learning and change in the civil service? This is the question the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC) sought to answer in our 2013 Report, Truth to Power: How Civil Service Reform Can Succeed, and it is the question that this select committee is again exploring as part of our latest civil service Inquiry.

There are, of course, many cases of successful reform across Whitehall, and important lessons can be drawn from identifying and examining these examples. One possible area for investigation was presented to me last November when I was speaking at the Institute for Government on PACAC’s civil service inquiry. Sir David Omand, former Permanent Secretary at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) pointed to the success of GCHQ in adapting to and harnessing the advantages of rapid technological development. Why, he asked, had GCHQ managed this so successfully, where others had failed?

One explanation, as Sir David suggested, is that GCHQ managed their digital transformation without the use of external consultants. This creates a key demand and expectation that staff will themselves find solutions to the problems and challenges they face. When there is bias towards relying on consultants, rather than tackling issues in house, this tends to result in a disengagement from those who should be most engaged. Appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee in November, Lord Kerslake, former Head of the civil service, identified the need to improve engagement as a key factor in determining successful reform.

This points to a more fundamental challenge for today’s civil service.  How can the civil service underpin its own sustainability as an organisation, when it is ministers, rather than civil servants, who are accountable for its organisation and future? Both Lord Kerslake and Lord Butler agreed that government must recognise that long-term stewardship of the civil service is “an activity that will go beyond their particular administration” and ministers must be willing to subscribe to that.

The key to successful reform is therefore to recognise that reform is not something that ministers do to the civil service, but it is a cooperative effort.  That is only possible if ministers and officials understand their respective roles, and trust each other, or there will be no open discussion, no open-minded exploration of concerns and options, and no genuine joint understanding of what needs to be reformed.  Ministers are somewhat removed from GCHQ.  Nevertheless, they feel able to rely on its performance and trust its leadership. What lessons from this would benefit the rest of Whitehall?  I hope that the report on our present civil service inquiry will shed light on this question.

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