What Francis Maude can learn from France on civil service reform22 October 2012
Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, is keen to look overseas for examples of civil service reform. If he looks across the Channel, he will conclude that reform can be neither part-time nor half-hearted.
Just over two years ago, in June 2010,Maude said he was "a big fan of the civil service … I do worship at the shrine of Northcote-Trevelyan". In June 2012, Maude published his civil service reform plan and his frustration with the civil service is becoming more palpable, as his speech in early October, on "unacceptable" blocking of government policies, revealed.
In September 2012, thinktank IPPR was appointed to carry out an external review of the government machinery in other countries, specifically Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Sweden – and France. That review will be published shortly. But a deep insight into the French model is available from a series of interviews carried out for consultancy KcKinsey with Francois-Daniel Migeon, the leader of Direction générale de la modernisation de l'État, the body launched in 2007 to co-ordinate the transformation of French government reform, and one of the key architects of the major public sector reforms initiated in France in 2008.
In the most recent interview, published in October 2012, Migeon says it is possible to transform the civil service and change how the workforce operates in order to improve quality and save money. The emphasis is about shifting from focusing on resources to focusing on results. "Civil servants understand that in order to truly serve, their duty is to modernise," says Migeon.
There are some valuable lessons for Whitehall.
First, the commitment must come from the highest levels of government. Civil service reform was a crucial pillar of President Sarkozy's campaign platform when he came to office in 2007. As a result, he had a democratic mandate and a personal investment in the programme's success. Ministers were given the freedom to implement efficiencies in their departments and meet targets for the improvement of services. At the same time, the political profile of the scheme was maintained by a steering committee made up of the prime minister, budget minister and the president's chiefs of staff, who met ministers every three months to discuss progress. The information was made available to the public through an online portal that showed where progress was being made.
Second, it pays to be clear and honest about the objectives of any reform programme. Migeon argues that the scale of the programme was "second to none", aiming to achieve €15bn of savings during 2009-2013 across 18 government ministries employing 2.5 million civil servants. By communicating this early on, everyone knew there was going to be a radical overhaul of government. Such ambitious targets were never going to be achieved by tinkering around the edges. The programme has so far achieved €7bn savings and by the end of 2012 head count will have come down by 150,000.
Third, focus on what matters to people. Migeon and his colleagues found that in general, most people perceived government services to be effective based on a small number of personal and professional interactions or "life events". How easy was it, for instance, to obtain a marriage licence or register the birth of a child, and, for businesses, to open a new branch or office? The government made it a key goal to increase public confidence by simplifying these interactions. Recent assessments show that on an individual level, the perceived complexity of conducting these "life events" has decreased by 20% and for businesses by 25%. They used quick wins to get public confidence behind the programme. Good departments have been held up as an example to weaker departments, showing them that change is possible.
Maude and the government are right to look overseas for examples of transformational change. We have much to learn. The French story shows that reform has to be an organising principle of government. To reform government, the government must reform the civil service and it must make this reform centre stage.
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