Why the Civil Service Workforce Plan doesn't go far enough
Most of the challenges the Workforce Plan purports to tackle are ones that Whitehall has bumped up against for decades. Perhaps it's time to start interrogating the civil service's Victorian structures – rather than simply adding layers of reform on top, argues Andrew Greenway
Oxford undergraduates tackling the ‘Modern British Government and Politics’ paper in 2013 faced a difficult opener. “Are the problems of the UK civil service fundamentally problems of recruitment?”
The first place to look for Whitehall’s own response might be the government’s plans for the civil service workforce. The trick for answering these kinds of exam questions, by the way, is to first define every word of the enquiry. This is to ensure that the question fits with the answer you’ve chosen to write long before you’ve sat down and lined up your pens. The government’s own plans have the whiff of a pre-cooked answer. They don’t quite get into the guts of the question.
Last month, Whitehall’s chief people officer, Rupert McNeil, visited the Institute for Government to talk about them. During this parliamentary term it is compulsory for every official of DG level and above to have their own vision for 2020. McNeil is no exception.
There’s plenty to applaud in what McNeil said at the IfG. Making the civil service “the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020” is an admirable aim. Lots of what he said about deepening the civil service’s digital and commercial skills, increasing permeability for outsiders, eliminating bias from recruitment processes is great. The very existence of a chief people officer in itself is cause for minor celebration. There are few corporate terms more barbarising than Human Resources. “People” has got to be an improvement.
The IfG’s event came billed as “What the civil service of tomorrow will look like”. Listening to the contributions, there are some good actions aimed towards making the civil service a more diverse, flexible and skilled place. But turning back to the exam question again, there’s a strange blank. What will the Workforce Plan stop the institution from doing? What gets turned off, wound down or downgraded in importance?
I’m not sure. Straight off the bat, the first page of the plan emphatically rules out taking much away. The 160-year-old rules of the civil service are fine, thank you. This stall is plainly set out: “Our task today, just as in previous eras, is to continue to build on these foundations.” The rest of the plan is Daft Punk: we need a civil service that’s harder, better, faster, stronger.
The problem is that most of the challenges that the Workforce Plan is purporting to tackle – making Whitehall a more attractive destination for outsiders, creating a workforce that is diverse in thought and mind, allowing people with frontline operational experience to rise to the very top of the pile – are challenges that the bureaucracy has bumped up against for decades, centuries even. The idea that they might have something to do with the foundations can’t be ruled out.
Today’s solution involves making the civil service more multidimensional; adding more layers to what’s already there. Twenty-six professions will layer on top of 25 or so departments. The professions are not designed to replace departments as an organising structure. They add another layer on top. This is a worry.
This concern is not the same problem that befell the Single Departmental Plans. The SDPs were a half-hearted attempt by the centre that tried to override the incentives that have guided departments’ behaviour since the Victorian era. It was hard to see what they offered to alter the political arithmetic attached to departmental lines of accountability, ownership of risk and deployment of resources. It was no surprise they didn’t get far.
The professions agenda is slightly different. It appears to have greater backing, more leadership, and a bigger pull. There’s something in it for more people. The thing I can’t quite follow is: in an organisation where departments regularly end up fighting like rats in a sack, what will introducing 26 new silos do? Will it really make the civil service more flexible or turn office politics into a game of three-dimensional chess? Will it really broaden the talent pool at the very top of Whitehall or keep specialists in their boxes? Will civil servants work in multidisciplinary teams or stick in those of their profession? Will it mean more meetings or fewer?
Reluctance to kick hard at the cornerstones of Whitehall’s foundations makes sense. Especially in this most odd and overstretched of parliamentary terms. Any organising principle that has held firm for this long is difficult to critically examine at the best of times. When they still exert an obvious positive influence, the task is even harder. McNeil would have been a brave man indeed if he had tried to challenge the canards of Northcote-Trevelyan in his 2020 plan.
Even the Fulton enquiry, backed by the Great and the Good’s full (albeit qualified) might, conspicuously ruled out machinery of government changes before it even started, leaving only second-order questions of management and recruitment for the committee to play with. Fulton’s solutions withered because they were planted in topsoil rather than Whitehall’s crustier depths.
But the civil service’s grandest virtues are partly culpable for some of its most enduring vices. Any reform layered on top is only ever going to get so far. It’s a pity, I think, that faced with the tumultuous politics for a generation, no official or politician is picking at the Victorian mechanics of what they’re piloting. That doesn’t mean throwing them all in the bin. But taking them as read is equally clumsy.
The Workforce Plan is full of good, sensible ideas. But if it really wants to tackle the exam question, it needs to push the boundaries a little further. Then it might be time to start worrying about career paths.
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