Thoughts for an incoming Government: the Civil Service

Posted on: September 5th, 2014

The UK needs a high-performing Civil Service but at present the service is not in good shape. A Government with determination and imagination which values the Civil Service could return it to what it once was and can be again – a high-performing organisation that helps Governments to achieve their objectives and ensures that Britain is well governed. We believe that the Civil Service needs a Government which will both champion and challenge it.

We would like to see Government seek a compact with the senior leadership of the Civil Service. It should offer a relationship built on mutual trust. The service has changed radically in recent decades and in many ways for the better – it is much more open to ideas and talent, has in many areas real expertise not found elsewhere and has tried hard to improve its project management skills. The public do not understand this because it is so rarely acknowledged by those who seem not to accept the principle of a permanent and impartial Civil Service recruited on merit. Nevertheless we readily accept that a lot more needs to be done to make the Civil Service once again fit for purpose, including:

• internal accountability needs to be strengthened and poor performance less readily tolerated;
• delivery and project management are still not as good as they should be;
• in its efforts to improve delivery the Civil Service has tended to underplay the importance of what should be its other core skill, namely policy formation;
• the high turnover of staff at all levels, in part driven by promotion incentives, militates against the development of expertise (it also undermines accountability). On average longer postings are needed;
• the distribution of talent and skills cannot simply be the result of the quasi-market in jobs that are internally advertised and subject to competition. There needs to be a better balance between departments’ ability to use their assets to meet their needs and the interests of individuals and also better succession planning;
• the Civil Service needs a workforce strategy designed to produce over the long term the range of skills that it requires. While it will always be necessary to bring in skilled people at all levels, especially at the top, all large organisations which enjoy long-term success grow much of their own talent.

We believe that a programme along these lines would help to restore the Civil Service’s effectiveness and reputation and would deserve the Government’s support. In return Ministers are entitled to expect high quality support and a Civil Service which does its very best to achieve the outcomes that the Government seeks.

Ministers should recognise that it will not be possible to build a high-performing organisation if they continue constantly to carp about it in public. In recent years that criticism has sometimes been couched, as regards Permanent Secretaries, in highly personalised terms.