‘Tinkering at the margins’ will not kick civil service vices
13 August, 2012

Simon Parker, Director, NLGN

In June, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude released a civil service reform plan that he claimed would create a faster, more innovative and more flexible Whitehall. Weeks later, he is back for another bite at the cherry.

Maude’s call for outside advice on how to reform relations between ministers and mandarins reflects a deep and justifiable frustration among ministers with the way the civil service operates. It is a frustration that can no longer be addressed by tinkering at the margins.

There are many good things about Whitehall: it punches its weight against other OECD countries and possesses one of the most dedicated and talented workforces in the world. But large groups of intelligent people can sometimes behave in stupid ways. The civil service is capable of delivering extraordinary results, but it can also be guilty of weak performance management, inefficiency and bureaucracy.

Any serious approach to transforming the civil service has to tackle Whitehall’s two greatest vices. The first is its aversion to serious accountability, which is a real problem but not a very big one. The second is Whitehall’s culture of departmentalism, which is real, big and ought to be the focus of Maude’s next wave of reforms.

Let’s deal with accountability first. Constitutional conventions mean that ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their department, but grant politicians no power to fire or discipline officials who mess up. The result, according to Maude, is that senior civil servants end up being accountable to no one.

The reality is not quite that simple. Permanent secretaries are appraised by the cabinet secretary. They are hard to sack, but so are unwilling senior figures in any large organisation. Officials who displease ministers find themselves rapidly sidelined in ways that can seriously damage their careers.

There is scope to go much further, but New Zealand-style performance contracts are probably a step too far. That country’s state sector has been rowing back from its contractual approach for 20 years. Tight departmental accountability led to the creation of up to 45 ministries in a country of 4 million people. The system struggled for years to find a way to deliver joined-up policy making.

This brings us to Whitehall’s second and deeper vice. There is plenty of evidence to show that even during the Blair/Brown years, departments ruled supreme. Downing Street’s delivery unit gave it the ability to ruthlessly manage a very small number of programmes, but many of the cross-governmental public service agreement targets were missed, with few consequences.

Compared to other developed countries, our Cabinet Office and Treasury are unusually small. As one coalition special advisor told me recently, his greatest surprise on entering government was how threadbare the central departments were.

The result of this departmentalism is often poorly-made policy that makes sense in Whitehall but leads to chaos on the ground. Council tax benefit localisation threatens to undermine universal credit. City deals and community budgets are hamstrung by the refusal of central departments to play ball with each other. The long-awaited progress report on localism from decentralisation minister Greg Clark has been kicked into the long grass, probably because publication would show that several departments have not come anywhere near this supposedly cross-cutting policy theme.

If the coalition wants a smaller, more localised state then it needs to be more radical at the centre. Whitehall needs to be slimmer, smarter and more joined-up if it is going to play a constructive role in devolving power and managing service markets. To get there, Maude needs to look at much more radical reforms – French cabinets, Finnish programme boards, Dutch programme ministries, Canada’s Treasury Board Secretariat.

The civil service cannot just be patched up and allowed to muddle through. Its culture must be broken and remade.

Article originally appeared on the Guardian Public Leaders Network