The Civil Service reforms are too little, too late19 June 2012
Francis Maude is about to release a new White Paper on Civil Service reform. It looks like it will be a mouse, when it needs to be a lion.
According to various reports, some Cabinet Ministers such as Michael Gove and Theresa May have pushed for a real reform package, which would allow them to appoint senior civil servants on fixed-term contracts. That would indeed put Whitehall on a new and much better footing. Instead the paper will leave the flawed structures of Whitehall in place and do no more than propose some minor variations on a theme. Given the importance of the subject and the potential cross-party support for radical reform, this is a significant disappointment.
There are many good people in the central Civil Service who behave as if they are personally answerable for what they do, who try to become expert in what they do and who care about getting value for public money. But they do so despite the system, not because of it. Whitehall is based firmly on the idea that ministers are accountable for the performance of their departments, which lets individual civil servants off the hook. Without personal accountability, Whitehall tends to drift. Civil servants move between jobs very quickly, undermining any continuous action. Last November, for example, there were a dozen people in the team covering one of the Government’s most important priority areas. As of now, every single one of them has moved onto a different project. Within the Treasury, the policy head covering a sensitive, complex area of policy, where new legislation is being planned, has changed four times in 15 months. Serious, lasting work is next to impossible in these circumstances. Further, Whitehall has an old-fashioned working culture in which people are obsessed with their rights and work no more than the bare minimum. This newspaper has reported, for example, that ministers cannot get any work done on a Friday because, under a rigidly applied flexitime arrangement, many officials work their 80 hours (and no more) in nine days rather than 10. The dysfunctional set-up is a key reason for the UK’s failure in recent years to keep control of public spending, and to get any kind of value for it.
There should have been no need to publish a White Paper tomorrow, because ministers should have taken the necessary decisions immediately after the general election. Michael Gove and Theresa May, if the reports are correct, are absolutely right to want the ability to move senior civil servants. That would make it clear that they are personally accountable for their own performance. In turn, individual civil servants would then be formally accountable to their line managers. This would lay the foundations of a new performance culture. Without that any changes will be marginal, ineffective and temporary. For example, one key proposal seems to be that Whitehall will put its bottom 10 per cent of performers on “probation”, with the risk of dismissal unless there is improvement in that time. But it is already possible, under normal employment law, to work with employees (using disciplinary procedures) to help them improve or, if there is no improvement, to leave. The trouble is that Whitehall managers have been loath to apply the existing rules. I very much doubt that the White Paper will change this culture.
It has been reported that civil servants have poured scorn on Steve Hilton’s idea that Whitehall could be reduced in size by fully 90 per cent. As it happens, a serving civil servant told me the other day that the 80:20 rule does apply in Whitehall, ie that 20 per cent of the staff do nearly all of the work. A reduction in size in Whitehall could improve its work. There should be no doubt of the importance of Whitehall reform and the size of the potential benefits of getting it right.
Ministers have no excuse for having failed to act so far, because they have had the experience of the previous Government to draw on. Tony Blair began his period of office as a supporter for the Civil Service’s “Rolls-Royce” machine. He changed his mind when he experienced the system in practice. But he failed to solve the problem because he realised the necessity of fundamental reform too late. Initiatives such as the creation of a Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit were in themselves a reflection of Blair’s recognition of the incapacity of departments to “get the job done” on their own. But prime ministerial micromanagement cannot solve governmental incapacity except temporarily, in a few areas, and at the cost of efforts elsewhere.
Tony Blair never managed a proper Civil Service reform but he did set out his views in a speech in 2004. He advocated putting senior civil servants on fixed-term contracts and open recruitment from outside of the Civil Service; in other words, very similar ideas to those that Michael Gove and Theresa May have reportedly been putting forward. Ministers like David Blunkett, Liam Byrne and Caroline Flint were strongly supportive of a reform agenda. The Coalition should have learnt the right lesson from Labour’s experience, which was to act immediately and decisively. Instead it has learnt the wrong lesson, and put off reform until it is too late. In Opposition, the Conservative Party committed itself to reducing the numbers of special advisers, assuming that Whitehall, freed of Labour ministers, would prove its quality. Indeed it has, and it has not been pretty.
After a couple of years, all government are so beset with difficulties that any new, major reform does not get off the runway, no matter how beneficial. Civil Service reform looks like being a casualty yet again.