Opinion: Whitehall is good at starting government reforms, but must keep listening to disruptors to achieve lasting change

Written by Andrew Greenway on 2 May 2018 in Opinion

Many internationally lauded ideas for improving how government work have come from the UK – but even when they are copied many in the civil service view central reforming units like the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit to the Government Digital Service as irritants. This should change, says Andrew Greenway

Digital and technology fast streamers working at GDS. Photo credit: GDS/flickr

The UK rarely gives itself full credit for the influence it has on shaping public services around the world. For all our flaws, as far as others are concerned, we’re pretty good at government.

One of the most widely copied ideas is the disruptive central team. These units have a long history, from the Central Policy Review Staff’s (CPRS) Think Tank in 1971 through to the Blair-era Prime Minister’s Strategy and Delivery Units, and latterly the Nudge Unit and Government Digital Service. Their imitators are scattered all over the world, from Lima to Washington, Canberra to Mexico City.

Boiled right down, the real job of these teams is to show the rest of the civil service what’s right in front of them. Central units are often perceived as irritants, a distraction from difficult day-to-day business. It’s not a popular job now, and it never has been.

Take the CPRS. In 1975, it was tasked with reviewing the UK’s Overseas Representation — whether the FCO was up to the job, in short. The foreign secretary, James Callaghan, was up for it. The panjandrums on King Charles Street were not. Mandarins watered down the review’s scope before the prime minister read it, and kept up a steady campaign of obstructive sniping over the next two years. A government minister later discovered that FCO officials leant on friends at The Economist to get scathing copy published, lambasting the CPRS’ draft report. As he would later put it in his diary, “the machine is absolutely unprincipled in defending its interests.”


We’re better behaved these days. But new waves of disruptors appear and remain internationally popular in recognition of an unavoidable fact: our brains only have so much bandwidth. Most civil servants have institutional complexity, political subtlety and a million policy trade-offs spinning around their brains all at once. It is very easy for us to miss important things. And we do. In the 1970s, it was a commercial perspective on government. In the 1990s, it was metrics and implementation. In the 2000s, it was the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet-era.

There’s a great experiment in which a room of people is split in two. One half is asked to remember a 2-digit number, and the other a 7-digit number. While the presenter keeps talking, a unicyclist rides around the room. The mental effort required from the second group to hold the longer number in their heads often causes people to miss the unicyclist completely. What is blindingly obvious to a clear mind is obviously blind to a busy one.

Wherever they end up based, successful disruptive institutions share certain characteristics. They are teams that can demonstrate a new way of running organisations, reframing the problem you’re trying to solve. Left unchecked, large organisations behave like Tetris; the challenge just gets progressively faster and more complex over time. Learning how to cope with remembering 7-figure numbers is no good, because tomorrow it’ll be 8 figures. Then 10. Far better to take the hard route of changing the challenge, rather than reverting to the comfortingly familiar headache of complexity.

Getting the permission to create those teams in government demands bold leaders who recognise a necessity for reform, and make the most of crises. It is unlikely that the Obama administration would have found the impetus to create the US Digital Service as quickly as it did without the failure of Healthcare.gov, for example.

By using data, design and delivery, agile multidisciplinary teams working in digital institutions all over the world are now producing things that make a more eloquent case for institutional reform than any business case possibly can. Along the way, they are rewriting the rules that embed inertia; putting in place standards and controls that allow their organisations to repurpose resources away from costly contracts and failing programmes. Here and elsewhere, these institutions have brought through a new generation of Internet-era public servants into the heart of national government.

The challenge for the civil service is to make sure this kind of voice – however irritating and disruptive it may feel – is given some chance to have real and lasting influence. It needn’t always be shouted from the rooftops. But it must at least be heard internally. As the cabinet secretary wrote just last week, “Any successful enterprise understands that ‘being digital’ is not an option, it is a necessity.

Because whatever you think about Brexit, there is no question it represents a profound moment of change in national politics. It is reasonable, then, to expect it should be accompanied by some form of profound change in national institutions too. Yet at the moment, it is not clear – at least to me, and the many civil servants I’ve asked – exactly where in government the voice of a transformative team is coming from, or whether anyone is prepare to listen to it.

There is no future in which governments won’t need to reshape themselves in order to thrive. That will be hard. But it needn’t be complicated.

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Andrew Greenway
About the author

Andrew Greenway is a partner in Public Digital. His book, Digital Transformation at Scale: why the strategy is delivery, co-authored with Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore and Ben Terrett, was published on April 30th.

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