Special Report: Rebuilding the ship of state

Written by Joshua Chambers on 16 May 2012 in Feature
Feature

As the government prepares its civil service reform plans, CSW has carried out a major survey of civil servants – testing views both on how Whitehall is changing, and how it should change. Joshua Chambers reports.

The civil service is often compared to a Rolls Royce, but it’s better to envisage a grand old government galleon. She is capable of long, arduous journeys in tough conditions, and has seen many storms. However, the ship of state is slow to manoeuvre, and some parts are wearing out or becoming obsolete. The vessel is clearly in need of repairs and refitting.

Elected captains come and go, but many of her permanent crew have developed great experience from serving on her for many years; they also have their own thoughts on how best to sail her. So as the captain and his officers prepare to set a new course, Civil Service World has asked the crew for their opinions on the future of HMS Whitehall. We have gathered views both on the reefs that may lie in wait on the course set by the current helmsman, and on how the ship should be repaired and upgraded to handle the stormy weather currently battering this doughty vessel.

An online opinion poll run by CSW last month asked civil servants questions on policymaking, service delivery, change programmes, departmental capability, performance and risk management, movement around the civil service, and what it means to be a civil servant. In short: all the topics covered in the recent Open Public Services white paper, and many of those expected to receive attention in the forthcoming civil service reform plan, which is anticipated in June.

This is the first public survey to document civil servants’ thinking on the coalition’s direction of travel. The poll was open for two weeks, and received 1395 responses. Over a third of respondents (478) were senior civil servants (SCS) or grades 6&7, and we’ve been able to separate their responses from those of other grades; we can also divide the results by department, profession, length of service, sex and region, giving a detailed picture of civil servants’ views.

As the government prepares to publish its proposals for civil service reform CSW is making its own contribution to the debate by exploring civil servants’ views of the coalition’s policies, its cuts and its reforms.

Course made good?
As all sailors know, the most important consideration is the direction the craft is pointing in. Some of the coalition’s plans have been set out by Captain Cameron and first mate Nick Clegg in the government’s Open Public Services paper. Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has plotted the specific course for public service reform in numerous speeches to the civil service and interviews with this newspaper. He wants a smaller, more flexible, cheaper civil service that commissions more from the private sector, gives greater powers to local communities and councils, and takes more well-judged risks in the pursuit of innovation.

The poll first asked civil servants’ views on five ways in which the government wants to change the handling of policymaking and service delivery (see Fig1). The policy that received the most favourable response was “the move to use transparency and citizen choice at the local level to improve service quality, rather than relying on centralised targets and reporting systems.”

While civil servants don’t have a big reputation as lovers of transparency, 65 per cent of them gave favourable responses to this idea, and only 23 per cent were negative. Asked his reaction, civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake says he’s pleased his employees think that “transparency is very important, because one of the challenges that all governments have – not just this one – is how you close the gap between the governing and the governed and increase levels of public trust.”

Meanwhile Peter Riddell, the director of the Institute for Government, comments that although transparency is “a big cultural change [for civil servants], people move on and they realise that the world’s changed.” However, he does note that the most popular response allowed civil servants to reflect their concerns about implementation: 47 per cent said “it’s a good idea but I have concerns about implementation.” Riddell comments that “it’s a very civil service thing to say: ‘Hold on, how’s it going to work in practice?’”

Among the changing methods on which we sought opinions, the second most popular was “the move to achieve policy objectives by using softer methods around persuasion, ‘nudge techniques’ and stakeholder engagement, rather than regulation and legislation.” Overall, 58 per cent of civil servants expressed positive views about the move – with 64 per cent of senior civil servants and those in grades 6&7 approving. Meanwhile, only 30 per cent were negative. Policy professionals were even more enthusiastic, with 72 per cent in favour and just 20 per cent against.

Kerslake notes that under Labour, government often “secured its goals by a combination of targets, money and regulation. All three we’ll now be looking to reduce, and the fact that people are up for and interested in the idea of using alternative ways of government outcomes I think is really encouraging.”

The third most popular change is “the localism agenda, under which control over service delivery should shift from the central down to the local level.”

Overall, 59 per cent of civil servants were positive: while right-leaning newspapers and Conservative backbenchers often complain that civil servants seek to increase their powers, it seems that most civil servants are very open to an agenda that reduces their direct control over service delivery at the local level. “You could see a situation in which civil servants are worried about localism, but actually what your survey suggests is that we will get better outcomes, better government, if we take decisions at the right level, whether it’s local government or communities,” Kerslake comments.

Support for localism is not universal, however. The Department for Education (DfE) has bought the idea, with 74 per cent broadly backing localism, while 73 per cent were supportive in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) – something that suggests that the coalition’s rhetoric has won over this key department. Kerslake, the permanent secretary of DCLG, calls himself a “passionate localist.”

However, while 29 per cent of all civil servants expressed negative views about the localism agenda, this figure was 33 per cent in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the most hostile department. Under localism, BIS has seen its regional arms dismantled by DCLG through the scrapping of the government offices and regional development agencies, leaving the department with fewer levers at its disposal – and this experience may have soured views.

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Choppy waters
Under the ‘tight-loose’ agenda, control over service delivery is theoretically devolving away the centre, but in other areas the centre is taking greater control – namely via “the introduction by the Cabinet Office of mandatory, centralised frameworks designed to drive down costs in civil service operations, rather than allowing departments and agencies to retain full autonomy.” Asked about these frameworks, 48 per cent of civil servants were positive – an unexpected result, given how they constrict departments’ freedom of action. Still more surprisingly, 50 per cent of SCS and those in grades 6&7 support the changes, though they’re the ones most affected. As Kerslake explains, “it’s going to be quite uncomfortable for departments who’ve been used to having complete expression and doing it their own way to make this change.”

On this topic, though, views were more finely balanced, with 39 per cent of civil servants expressing negative views. Some 57 per cent of civil servants in the Department for Transport (DfT) opposed the move, making it the most hostile department. Further, even many of the policy’s supporters were lukewarm: only 11 per cent said “it’s a great idea and should work well.”

The least popular – or most unpopular – of the changes on which CSW sought opinions was “the move to open up public service delivery to the private and voluntary sectors, rather than maintaining government as the default provider of public services.” Only 31 per cent were positive (though the figure rose to 41 per cent among SCS and grades 6&7). Meanwhile, a whopping 63 per cent of civil servants disapproved.

Kerslake thinks that “inevitably, people will worry about the impact on their jobs and their own services, and that’s understandable as a concern. Equally, they might be wary about whether we can secure the quality of services that we want.” However he gives little ground: “I think the evidence is that, if you open things up to alternative ways of delivery, you can deliver different and better outcomes.”

For his part, Riddell says the finding is “striking,” because the changes on the whole “may not affect the civil service directly” – instead being concerned with other aspects of the public sector. Overall, it represents a clear “defence of existing interests,” he adds.

However, Dave Penman, the deputy general secretary of the FDA trade union, sees principle in the stance. Civil servants “are genuinely committed to believing that public services are best delivered by public servants,” he says. “There’s a commitment and an ethos that leads to better public service delivery.”

One private sector supplier, James Johns, director of public sector strategy for IT services company HP, argues that the opposition is not surprising because of the radical nature of the changes being proposed to delivery. He adds, though, that in previous efforts to open up public service delivery, civil servants who have moved to the private sector in outsourcing programmes have often found it a positive experience.

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Getting there
Having scouted out the government’s course, CSW turned to whether the civil service is equipped for the journey. Asked “to what extent does your organisation currently have the capabilities required to better meet the challenges facing it?”, 57 per cent of civil servants are positive, and 32 per cent negative.

There is, however, one exception: the Home Office. Of all the departments from which we had strong responses, only Home Office civil servants gave more negative (43 per cent) than positive (41 per cent) answers to this question. These findings do not align with the department’s new Capability Action Plan, which reviews its ability to meet future delivery challenges (see p5). This notes that capability in 2006 was very poor, but there was “significant improvement” in 2008, and the most recent assessment “demonstrates continued improvement in a number of areas.” Indeed, the Home Office’s own assessment finds its capabilities broadly in the middle of the Whitehall pack (p3, CSW 24 April). Yet when its staff were asked whether their department has the capabilities it will need, 36 per cent replied that “a large number of the necessary capabilies are absent or under-developed” and seven per cent said the Home Office “largely lacks” them. The department was approached for a comment, but did not respond.

We then tried to pin down exactly which civil service capabilies are seen as weak, asking “what capabilities does your organisation most need to improve in order to better meet the challenges facing it?” (see also Fig2). Respondents could pick up to three answers, and the most popular was “the recruitment and retention of appropriate staff, and better management of poorly-performing staff” – chosen by 59 per cent. In the Ministry of Defence (MoD), 73 per cent of civil servants picked the option, indicating a particularly acute problem. Maude has made performance management one of his priorities for reforming the civil service, and the next part of our poll examined potential solutions in some detail.

Meanwhile, the second most chosen capability that requires improvement was “consultation with, and engagement of, the workforce in pursuing reform,” selected by half of all people surveyed. Closer analysis shows a split between senior and junior staff: only 38 per cent of SCS and grades 6&7 thought this a problem, but 51 per cent of other grades named it.

When it comes to consultation, not all departments are equal: only five per cent of DCLG officials were critical of their employer’s engagement skills – a good finding for Kerslake – but in HMRC some 58 per cent of respondents named it as a priority for improvement.

IT’s important
The third most popular answer on this question was “the conception and development of appropriate IT systems,” picked by 41 per cent. HP’s Johns says that this problem has arisen because most of the money put into IT in recent years has gone into the operational side rather than policymaking and HQ functions. Further, he argues that the finding highlights the traditional problem of departments designing their own systems, rather than collaborating with other departments and the private sector before tendering. The Cabinet Office is now tackling this problem, Johns thinks, with Maude having put in place moves to join up IT procurement and project management across departments, and to improve IT procurement.

The fouth most popular response focuses on the need to respond to the localism agenda: 25 per cent named the “development and management of systems that ensure value for money in service delivery, while leaving control over service management at the local level.” And fifth was the “production and use of high quality management” – the SCS and grades 6&7 were much more interested in this than other grades, with 28 per cent and 16 per cent naming it respectively.
Respondents were less worried about their leaders’ ability to set “strategic goals and devise appropriate organisational structures”: though 32 per cent of Home Office and 28 per cent of Department of Health (DH) officials put it in their top three, only 19 per cent named it overall. Opinions were most positive in the DWP, where just 12 per cent picked that option.

Finally, the option which respondents were least concerned about was the “design and development of working markets in goods and services provision” – although DCLG and DfE officials rated the need for improved capability here much higher than those in other departments. Either most people think they have those skills, or they just don’t think they’ll need them.

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High performance
Ministers think that performance management in the civil service needs improvement. Speaking at Civil Service Live last year, Maude said that “there must be more rigorous performance management” and that currently “there are poor performers who get overlooked and tolerated.” As discussed, our poll found widespread support for Maude’s comments, with 59 per cent naming recruitment and performance management as key areas for improvement. Within HR departments, support was still higher: 67 per cent of HR professionals named it. Sir Bob comments that “the consistent message is that we need to tackle people who are poor performers, and I absolutely share and agree with that view, as do ministers.”

Given this desire to improve performance management, CSW asked civil servants for their views on a range of ways to do so (see Fig3, below). The most popular was to “strengthen and streamline disciplinary processes so that incompetent or poorly-performing staff are more quickly identified, assessed and offered support and training,” which received favourable responses from 84 per cent of civil servants. In fact, some 53 per cent of respondents – and 66 per cent of Home Office civil servants – named the strongest option here, saying that “it’s important that we improve this” (see Editorial, p4).

The second most popular option was to “tie promotion more clearly to performance” – with 84 per cent positive. The third was to “increase the public recognition for good performance through, for example, the use of awards and praise by senior managers”, an option that received the broad support of 76 per cent of all civil servants and 81 per cent of HR professionals.

More suprisingly, there was also strong support for a much tougher option: “Strengthen and streamline disciplinary processes so that incompetent or poorly-performing staff can be more easily dismissed.” This found 66 per cent offering some level of support, against 26 per cent who were negative. In the HR profession, 72 per cent approved, while 90 per cent of the communications profession were supportive – indicating either very high standards among communications respondents, or a concentration of poor performers. The DWP was the most supportive department, with 70 per cent backing the idea.

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Pay me my money down
Performance-related pay (PFP) received mixed reactions, with civil servants wanting to increase its breadth, but not its depth. While 56 per cent backed extending it to those who don’t currently receive it, only 39 per cent supported the idea of increasing the average proportion of pay that is performance related.

Of all these proposals, the only ones that saw splits between senior and junior civil servants were those on PFP; here the senior grades, many of whom currently receive PFP, were less positive. On the question of extending the breadth of PFP, 48 per cent of senior grades supported the proposal, against 62 per cent of other grades. And on increasing its depth, 33 per cent of senior grades were supportive, compared to 42 per cent of all other grades.

With all the other other proposals, there was little difference of opinion – reflecting a uniform desire to improve performance management. This is interesting because it might be expected that senior managers would want greater powers to support or sack poor performers, while junior employees would see that prospect as threatening. Yet it seems that junior staff are just as frustrated as their leaders with their slacking or incompetent colleagues; if the unions try to fight moves to improve or toughen performance management, they may find little support for their cause.

The government has announced new measures to clarify performance management systems. “We’ve just developed new procedures for how to handle poor-performing staff that enables you to deal with that more effectively and quickly,” Kerslake says.

Moving on up
The government wants the civil service to become more fluid and flexible. Speaking at Civil Service Live last year, Maude said “the civil service should be flatter. At present the typical departmental organogram would do the Chinese imperial court proud.” He added that “people should be able to move more easily within the service.”

Therefore, CSW asked for the three biggest barriers limiting people’s ability to move between civil service organisations (see Fig 4, p17). More than half – 52 per cent – complained of “a tendency within recruiting organisations to favour internal candidates.” The next most selected problem was “pay differentials between different departments and regions”, picked by 47 per cent – and something that will worsen if the coalition sticks to its plans to allow more regional pay variations. Penman agrees that flexibility is regularly constrained by those two factors, and says they’re caused by “a silo mentality which then gets in the way of movement that would be beneficial for the whole civil service.”

The third greatest barrier is “fears among potential applicants of leaving secure posts in their existing organisations”, cited by 37 per cent, and the fourth is “the fact that processes and systems vary across the civil service, limiting people’s transferable skills”.

Riddell observes that “clearly, there’s some worry in these times of leaving a secure post,” adding that the findings don’t “point to as much flexibility as the civil service leadership would like.”

Kerslake responds that “one of the ways we might deal with that is to have more consistency across the civil service with how we assess people’s capabilities, and that’s something we think we’ll look through and have some proposals on in the civil service reform plan. If you had more consistency about being able to assess people’s capabilities and where they were, people might therefore, in interviews, be open to looking at someone who wasn’t from their own department.” He added that the plan will contain “more corporate management of the senior civil service, and more cross-Whitehall work on talent development and career development.”

It’s possible to split the poll results by region, which is instructive when looking at the fifth barrier: “A lack of information about jobs elsewhere in the civil service”. Across the country, 25 per cent of civil servants thought this an issue – but the situation is worse in the West Midlands, where 34 per cent name it as a major problem, and in Wales, where the figure is 38 per cent. Clearly some regions need to better promote job vacancies, and Kerslake promises to take this problem to Civil Service Local to ensure those regions improve.
While relatively few named a lack of “relocation grants and assistance” as a barrier to movement, there were significant regional variations (see Fig4).

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Risky business
The government wants the civil service to become more innovative, and recognises that this will involve taking more risks – bringing, of course, the danger of failure. Maude has complained that “caution too often trumps innovation. The tried and tested is preferred to the bright idea that carries some risk and might just fail.”

CSW therefore asked for civil servants’ opinion of the government’s risk management skills. Only seven per cent said “the civil service has all the risk management skills it will require”, while 27 per cent said these skills need “a little improvement”, 42 per cent called for “significant improvement”, and 17 per cent saw a need for “dramatic improvement”. In the SCS and grades 6&7, 64 per cent chose one of the latter two options, and in the Department of Health 81 per cent of all grades did so – a fact which may help explain why the government has proved so reluctant to publish the risk register on NHS reforms (see news, p2).

What obstacles are preventing the civil service from taking more well-judged risks in the pursuit of innovation? CSW asked respondents to pick the three greatest obstacles from a list of 12, and discovered that “fear of criticism” dominated the answers: 43 per cent chose “fear of criticism in the media for wasting public money”, 34 per cent “ministers’ reluctance to approve spending that might be wasted, for fear of attracting criticism”, and 16 per cent “fear of criticism by select committees for wasting public money”.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS trade union, says the findings reflect the fact that “civil and public servants take a daily battering from sections of the mainstream media, for everything from doing too much work to not doing enough. There are some who would like to see the state reduced to a rump, and they use their influence or ownership of the media to try and pin all the ills of the world on public servants and the public sector. It’s an infantile vision that, sadly, many ministers are more than happy to foster.”

Splitting the responses to the question on ministerial caution by department, we can see which ministers are viewed as the most reluctant to approve spending for fear of criticism: DGLC came out top, with a four point variation from the average.

As for civil servants’ own fears of criticism, Penman points out that the risks are very real. Look at the Home Office’s treatment of former borders chief Brodie Clark, he says: “What happens when civil servants are innovative and take risks? Ministers look to hang them out to dry,” he complains. “When it all goes wrong, officials are blamed rather than ministers.” Riddell adds that scrutiny of individual civil servants has increased over the years, increasing the size of this obstacle.

One other answer proved particularly popular here: 32 per cent cited “a deep belief that civil servants should not take risks with public money”. Meanwhile 31 per cent complained of “the civil service’s diffused decision-making processes and multiple stakeholders, which tend to invite cautious voices and to give them undue weight”; and 30 per cent named “a tendency in the civil service to promote safe pairs of hands, creating a risk-averse set of managers”.

Making better plans

Civil servants are expected to look outside the ship of state for ideas, rafting up to other vessels to seek opinions; and under its changed approach to policymaking, the coalition wants to involve businesses, charities and communities in realising its objectives, rather than relying on the default options of legislation, regulation or direct delivery. So the survey told participants that “as part of its plans to improve policymaking, the government says it is keen to improve its effectiveness and encourage greater community action by involving external stakeholders in policy development.” We asked civil servants to name the three greatest obstacles to this, and the most popular response was “a tendency for ministers to have fixed ideas about the policies they want to see implemented” – selected by 57 per cent of all civil servants, and 60 per cent of those in the SCS and grades 6&7.

Breaking the figures down by department, 81 per cent of DH civil servants chose this option, 80 per cent in DfE and 71 per cent in the Home Office. So civil servants believe that it’s ministers’ own pet beliefs that limit the government’s ability to involve external stakeholders in policy development – and Riddell says the findings reflect the personalities of specific ministers. “You just need to look at the secretaries of state. In health, Lansley came in with very strong ideas, similarly with Michael Gove [in education], and the Home Office has strong priorities on immigration.”

The next biggest obstacles suggest a lack of open-mindedness and flexibility when it comes to consultation. Second was “a dependence on traditional means of consultation, and a lack of expertise in alternative methods of engaging with stakeholders”, chosen by 34 per cent; and third was “tight deadlines that limit effective engagement and involvement of external stakeholders”, chosen by 30 per cent (and 57 per cent of those in DfE, 50 per cent in DH, and 43 per cent in DCLG). Then came “a lack of funds for consultation and engagement work”, chosen by 30 per cent of all civil servants – and 41 per cent of civil servants in BIS. Only nine per cent complained of “a lack of suitable partners outside government”, and the same proportion said “I am not aware of any obstacles”.

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Why you do it
Serving any government is a difficult task, often thankless and sometimes flat-out exhausting. So why do civil servants do what they do, day-in, day-out?

CSW asked them to “name the three things that most appealed to you about a career in the civil service before you joined.” The most popular response was “the opportunity to serve the public and improve the country”, chosen by 51 per cent of civil servants – and 65 per cent of the SCS and grades 6&7. Kerslake says that “the fact it’s come ahead is very significant,” adding that “the two things you pick up from people about why they enjoy being a civil servant is that it’s interesting and varied work, so you’re doing work that does change and is genuinely interesting, but also that they can make a difference to the quality of people’s lives.”

The fact that a career in the civil service is varied appealed to 35 per cent of all civil servants, although it was more popular with fast streamers – appealing to 58 per cent. Heather Wells is chair of the civil service Fast Stream Forum, and explains that “it’s not only the variety of subject matter [that appeals]; it’s the variety of types of work, operational experience and corporate experience. I’m not aware of a comparable graduate scheme that would give people the same variety of work.” However, she adds that “some departments are better than others” at ensuring variety, allowing fast streamers to work in other departments or go on secondments.

Meanwhile, 48 per cent of all civil servants highlighted job security as a key draw (compared to just 14 per cent of fast streamers), and 39 per cent picked good pensions (compared to 14 per cent in the fast stream). Both these points link to the next section, where respondents were given a list of the civil service’s strengths and asked to name up to three that they thought might be under threat (see Fig7, right). The most popular answer was “pay, terms & conditions, and HR policies that ensure that civil servants feel valued”, which was chosen by 58 per cent of all civil servants – and 67 per cent of fast streamers.

Wells says that “although there is an understanding of the economic circumstances and the reasoning behind pay [constraints], there is obviously a frustration when this continues year on year. In real terms, we are seeing pay cuts. It’s not what people have in mind when they sign up for a high-flying civil service career.” This may explain why half of fast streamers highlighted “the civil service’s ability to compete with private business to attract talent and specialist skills” as something that’s at risk, compared to 25 per cent of all civil servants.

Kerslake responds that “it’s been a challenging and tough period for people, with pay freezes, changes to pensions, and reductions in numbers of staff – but I still think the offer of being a civil servant is a good one, and we should aim to keep it that way.”

The poll also identified major concerns that the civil service’s “ability to focus on public good, even in the face of competing political, financial or organisational priorities” is under threat – it was named by 37 per cent – and fears for “the ability to provide impartial, honest and open policy advice to ministers, speaking truth unto power”; this was picked by 35 per cent (and 42 per cent of SCS and grades 6&7).

Moving on, we found further fears over the potential politicisation of the civil service. Where the civil service commissioners grant exemptions from the recruitment rules, ministers are able to make short-term appointments without open competitions – a system that allows governments to bring in a handful of officials who form a kind of halfway house between special advisers and most civil servants. So we asked respondents: “Do you believe that people have been appointed to civil service jobs in your organisation on the basis of their connections within or experience with the Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties?” Overall, 22 per cent said yes, and 49 per cent said no. However, a departmental breakdown shows that 55 per cent of civil servants in the Cabinet Office, and 54 per cent of those in DfE, answered in the affirmative.

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All aboard?
There are clearly mixed opinions on the future of HMS Civil Service. While many are positive about aspects of the coalition’s approach, there are significant concerns over outsourcing, risk-taking, and terms and conditions.

On the whole, Kerslake finds the survey “reassuring” because it fits with the thinking being done by the government as it prepares a development and reform plan to modernise the civil service. Riddell agrees that the leaders of the civil service should feel reassured “by the broad thrust” of the poll, although he says he’d be worried by some of the points that emerge – including those on risk and capability.

There are also specific problems that individual departments need to tackle. The Home Office may want to look again at its capability; the Ministry of Defence should look closely at its performance management; and HMRC should consider workforce engagement. On a regional basis, Wales and the South West are not doing enough to promote vacancies.

As the government prepares its proposals on civil service reform, it clearly needs to keep its loyal crew on board. Civil servants do not oppose – indeed, many support – plans to give away power to local bodies, increase transparency in government, and use less regulation in favour of softer means of persuasion.

However, the ship of state is clearly creaking in places. There are problems with capability – particularly recruitment and performance management, workforce consultation, and the conception and development of IT systems. Further, there are threats to the ability of the civil service to focus on the public good and provide impartial, honest and open policy advice to ministers. Concerns are widespread over pay, staff retention, and pride in working for civil service. Finally, the flexibility of the future civil service seems constrained by a clear tendency for departments to favour internal candidates in recruitment processes.

If civil servants are to follow the course charted by ministers, they will need to make vital repairs. The government must therefore listen to its crew when it highlights the need for improvements in capability, reassurance about future rations and a change in civil servants’ ability to take risks. If the captain turns his blind eye to these problems, he may become becalmed, shipwrecked – or even the victim of a mutiny.

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