The UK government is pursuing a Civil Service Reform Plan. This summer, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) – of which I am chair – concluded a year-long inquiry into the future of the Civil Service. Our report, Civil Service Reform: how it can succeed has caused some surprise by avoiding the usual discourse about structures, organisation and systems. Instead we ask why ministers feel blocked or that decisions are being thwarted, and why whole agencies like the Borders Agency have collapsed altogether.
We ask why the trust between the politicians and permanent officials appears to have broken down. We focus on how divided leadership and confused accountabilities in Whitehall have led to problems such as a low level of engagement amongst civil servants in departments and agencies, and slow and risk-averse decision-making. What promotes the general lack of trust and openness that is embedded in the habits and behaviour of people in Whitehall? Why has Ministerial and Civil Service leadership failed to address a persistent lack of key skills and capabilities across Whitehall for decades? What has caused the unacceptably high churn rate of lead officials, which is incompatible with good government?
Whitehall is a Rolls Royce machine, but it is in need of modernisation and repair. There has been much successful change in the Civil Service over the years, such as in procurement and IT. There is ambition to embrace new technology, openness and transparency of data and new ways of interfacing citizens and public services, but PASC concluded that the present government’s programme of ‘incremental change’ in Whitehall as set out in their plan is ‘bound to fail’ as it lacks strategic coherence and clear and united leadership, and fails to analyse, let alone address, the key problems in the relationships and accountability in Whitehall.
The Civil Service exhibits the key characteristics of a failing organisation. Most people know the system is failing, but nobody knows how to talk about it. Meetings take place where things are agreed, then people leave and say or do something different. And the leadership are the last people to understand the true scale and nature of the challenge they face. The culture of Whitehall has become ‘political’, where everything has to be presented as better than it really is, and things that go wrong
must be blamed on individuals or previous governments. This promotes the filtering of honest and complete assessments to ministers. In some parts of government, PASC concluded that this has become the antithesis of telling ‘truth to power.’
The government’s own reform plan is no more than a programme of ‘incremental change’ – a series of disconnected initiatives that address symptoms of failure rather than causes. As a programme to create real change, we concluded, much to the annoyance of ministers, that it is ‘bound to fail’ as it lacks an evidence base, strategic coherence and clear leadership from a united team of ministers and officials. Unless the Prime Minister and his most senior ministers make Civil Service reform their priority, why should anyone else? In any case, it does not address the fundamental key problem, which is about attitude, behaviour and culture. No independent witness suggested the government’s present programme of reforms would succeed in creating the transformational change that is required.
Our report contained only one recommendation: that Parliament should establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to sit as a Commission on the future of the Civil Service. It should be constituted within the next few months and report before the end of the Parliament. First, it must open up a conversation about why people tend to behave as they do, and establish a consensus about what is going wrong. Then it should propose a comprehensive change programme for Whitehall with a timetable to be implemented over the lifetime of the next Parliament that addresses those problems.
The Prime Minister has already dismissed this recommendation. Ministers and officials fear it would be a distraction from implementing the government’s policies. Such a denial is to be expected, but there is no evidence that the Civil Service can reform itself. In their foreword to the One Year On report, Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake wrote: ‘Too little of what we set out to achieve has been fully executed.’ This is all the evidence you need that it is not going to deliver the transformative change that is necessary to meet the challenges faced by our country. The deeper problems in the attitudes and culture of Whitehall can only be exposed and addressed by external scrutiny by an independent body. Only if its analysis is to be accepted by all will ministers and lead officials be able to inspire and to drive change.
I hope our report will trigger a new debate about the Civil Service and Whitehall, and lead to a new settlement that will sustain our permanent and impartial Civil Service appointed on merit. Established in the mid-nineteenth century, it has seen the UK depressions, general strikes, two world wars, the Cold War and the age of globalisation and the internet. Much has changed, and it needs to change too, but it still sets a high benchmark to which so many other governments aspire.
For this reason, the PASC report is being studied by foreign governments, such as in Russia and Georgia. In Georgia, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister themselves lead the national programme of Civil Service reform. It is an irony that while our report is being studied by foreign governments, it is being collectively shunned at home by the British Ministers and senior officials to whom it is addressed.