Civil servants could be set exams in reform drive, reveals Conservative manifesto chief

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Richard Johnstone on 2 January 2020 in News
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Union says proposals show "a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service"

Boris Johnson reads the Conservative manifesto on a train. Photo: PA

Civil servants are “woefully unprepared” for "seismic" changes to their working culture being planned by Downing Street, which could include annual exams, the author of the Conservative Party’s manifesto has declared.

Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservatives' election blueprint, said officials could face tests in a bid to end what she called an environment where “everyone rises to their position of incompetence", a comment branded insulting by civil service union chiefs.

Wolf also said that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister's most senior adviser, would seek to slow the "merry-go-round" that sees civil servants change jobs regularly.


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Cummings is a longstanding critic of the civil service, arguing in 2014 talk Whitehall "promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done" and has claimed that "almost no one is ever fired" in an organisation in which "failure is normal".

No.10 is already planning a string of changes to the structure of government, with several departments set to be merged or rebadged after Britain leaves the European Union at the end of this month. Proposals include breaking up the Home Office and the creation of a "super-ministry"to oversee the next phase of Brexit negotiations, while Cummings is also seeking a review of the civil service's hiring and firing rules.

Writing in The Telegraph, Wolf claimed that Cummings's plan to "run the most dynamic state in the world" would go much further.

She said: "I cannot decide if Downing Street has deliberately sent people down the wrong path, or if officials are so used to meaningless 'machinery of government' changes that they cannot believe the PM and his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, mean business. As a result, they seem woefully unprepared for what is coming.

"Dominic has been reading and thinking about how to transform the public sector for two decades. He does not think it is a distraction, but a prerequisite to delivering even the simplest promises."

Exams for officials – and special advisers

Wolf, a former adviser to Johnson who now works for the lobbying firm Public First, called for a host of changes to the working culture of Whitehall including on recruitment, training and frequency of job changes.

Arguing that the civil service is currently dominated by officials with humanities degrees, Wolf said No.10 would ensure training is "taken more seriously" once people are in post.

"Data science, systems thinking, and super-forecasting [a set of techniques used to forecast social, political and financial events] will be on the list," she said. 

"I wouldn’t be surprised if officials, and special advisers, were set exams."

The government is currently considering changes to the performance management system for senior civil servants after the scrapping of the forced-distribution assessment model in 2018-19.

Performance management guidance for the SCS, published by the Cabinet Office last April, said departments will be required to assess senior civil servants “against their objectives, assigning individuals to one of the three performance groups: top, achieving, and low”.

The government plans to implement a new SCS performance-management system in 2021-22, and is now testing a new approach in the Department for Education. The DfE pilot, which builds on an approach it has already implemented for its delegated grades, focuses on monthly coaching conversations instead of end of year performance discussions and an increased focus on in-year reward for achieving key milestones. 

This is the latest indication of looming civil service reform, following a Policy Exchange report earlier this week that recommended changes including restoring extended ministerial offices. Introduced in 2013 under the coalition government, EMOs, which are intended to increase policymaking capacity for departmental ministers, were scrapped in 2017.

Whitehall "merry-go-round"

Wolf meanwhile hit out at what she called the "merry-go-round" of frequent role changes for civil servants, arguing that "any official who has spent more than 18 months in a post is seen to have stalled" because the organisation values "transferable" skills more than hard knowledge.

She added: "This has catastrophic effects. It ensures the 'Peter Principle' – where everyone rises to their position of incompetence – is ever-present. It kills institutional memory and expertise. It allows officials an escape from accountability."

The Conservative manifesto author said officials should be “kept on projects where they know the background” under No.10's plans, and, in a move that could anger civil service unions, she hinted at a “rethink of incentives, numbers, and pay”.

Urging Downing Street to oversee a wider overhaul of the organisation, Wolf said civil servants are too focused on "stakeholders" and not the public.

"Too many officials see special interests as their customers," she argued. "The government understands that in five years it won’t be judged on the way the civil service is designed but on whether it has delivered on its promises."

Proposals "an Insult to officials"

FDA union general secretary Dave Penman said Wolf’s comments showed "a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service".

And he suggested the proposals talked up by Wolf were less radical than coalition era reforms led by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who brought in a since-abolished system of forced distribution and increased the requirement for central approval of government spending.

"Whilst those advocating reform may like to paint the civil service as antiquated or resistant to change, the reality is somewhat different," Penman told CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome.

"The UK civil service, recently ranked first in an international analysis of effectiveness, has had to constantly reform and adapt as each government sets out its new priorities.

"Indeed, the reforms being trailed are more modest than, say, the challenges the civil service faced in 2010. Whilst supporting the first coalition government since the Second World War, it had to manage cuts of 20% in resources, deliver a radical policy agenda and at the same time institute a series of reforms under Francis Maude, transforming how government worked."

He added that “rhetoric of ‘civil servants being promoted to a level of incompetence’ is not only insulting, but demonstrates a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service”.

“All Senior Civil Service jobs are externally advertised, meaning anyone promoted has not only competed successfully against their peers, but also with external candidates.

"Indeed many of the issues the civil service faces are of the government’s own creation. Churn in Senior Civil Service roles is a result of a decade of pay stagnation, with movement between jobs the only route to a pay rise."

If ministers are "serious about delivering 50 million new GP appointments, new train lines and better buses", they need a "clearer plan on how the reforms being mooted will actually deliver the transformation being promised", he added.

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Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Richard Johnstone
About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is the news editor of PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets @matt_hfoster

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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