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Fundamental changes are still needed to deliver an effective Civil Service

(Alamy)

3 min read

“We have found no instance where reform has run ahead too rapidly.” This phrase – originally from the 1968 Fulton Report – was quoted by Lord Maude last week in evidence to Parliament. The former master of Whitehall reform was back, making the same old case for transforming the Civil Service.

Since Maude, the only minister to really take up the reform baton has been Michael Gove. Exactly two years ago today, he published the Declaration on Government Reform (DGR) – the latest plan to fix the Civil Service. Two months later, he was reshuffled, and since the DGR’s publication, we’ve had five different ministers for the Cabinet Office. Little wonder progress has been slow.

The acid test must be whether the DGR changes Whitehall’s underlying behaviours. As part of Reform’s ‘Reimagining Whitehall’ programme, we’ve identified three biases which hamper Whitehall’s effectiveness. Two years on from Gove’s plan, how far have we progressed?

For all the excitement about the new trailblazer devolution deals, the habits of central government die hard

First, the power-hoarding bias – Whitehall’s tendency to micromanage and try to do everything from the centre. On this, we’ve seen mixed progress. For all the excitement about the new trailblazer devolution deals, the habits of central government die hard. This is exemplified by the Treasury spending controls imposed on DLUHC, meaning all capital spending on devolution now requires the Chancellor’s approval. The centre simply cannot learn to let go.

It’s worth remembering why this is so important. Devolving power from the centre allows local government to design more responsive services closer to communities. But it also offers the prospect of a more strategic centre. By freeing national government to prioritise long-term threats and challenges, we can build its capability to focus on the issues which will define the future of our country.

The second bias is a single mindset, defined by cognitive homogeneity, narrow skill sets and groupthink. Since the DGR, there have been some positive signs. We’ve seen more open competition for senior Civil Service posts and the development of the Central Digital and Data Office to promote technological expertise. More impressive still is the Darlington Treasury campus – though announced prior to the DGR – where 69 per cent of staff are new recruits to the Civil Service. These measures – alongside plans for the first policy campus outside London and a regional fast stream – are evidence of diversification.

But much more fundamental change is still needed. Whitehall remains dominated by the usual cadre of policy experts. Building pathways for those with expert skills to come into government and reach the top of Whitehall must be a priority.

Finally, the bureaucratic bias – an obsession with process over outcomes, a deep culture of risk aversion, and too little strategic thinking. The DGR doesn’t contain the phrase “long-term” and, while it promises to “encourage considered risk taking”, the structural and cultural changes needed to achieve this are ignored.

This is not to deny some bright spots. The Evaluation Task Force – a joint Treasury-Cabinet Office unit – has placed much-needed emphasis on assessing whether government projects actually work. But this alone cannot shift the underlying culture. Just as with the other two biases, a more ambitious change agenda is needed.

Two years on from the DGR, we’re still having the same conversations – we’re not even jogging, never mind running ahead. And one year out from an election, government is running out of time to grip this agenda.

Francis Maude is right to remind us that Whitehall reform is not a “nice to have”, it’s the key to building a government which can really deliver. If this government can’t drive the necessary changes, the next will have to, if they really want to build reformed and effective public services.

 

James Sweetland, senior researcher at Reform think tank

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