Opinion: Covid proves the need for a civil service shake-up

The government’s pandemic response shows that the Whitehall can move at speed. But those lessons must now be learned and fully embedded in government
Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

By Patricia Hodgson

27 May 2021

Post-Covid, the UK can and will be better governed. The point is to learn not just from what went wrong (poor pandemic planning, the initial care home catastrophe, border control confusion and so on), but from what went right (vaccines, economic support, routine and – at last – surge testing). We have learned a great deal about what we need from the machinery of government, not only in respect of Covid but more generally. 

It’s about people, first of all. The crisis put a premium on listening to what people think and are asking for. Then, it’s about the response of leaders, in government and public service. There are lessons for systems and structures but what emerges, if we’re to make a fast and lasting difference, is the need to attract and develop talent – and to have the right kind of leadership. This is what the public demands: Policy Exchange’s polling, published in our Reform of Government Commission report, shows that only 21% of people feel the civil service has all the administrative skills and capabilities it needs. 

Next year’s independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic will find familiar failings of politics and bureaucracy: lack of skills, political uncertainty, squabbling, confused accountability. But more immediately, we should focus on what delivered the goods for government: new patterns of cabinet working, very good use of data, task force focus, as well as public service coming together with business and military skills to real effect. Government must never be the same again.

The best people in the system know it, too. For the last six months, Policy Exchange’s Reform of Government Commission has been taking evidence from the likes of Lord Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary, Lord Macpherson, former permanent secretary at the Treasury, and Lord Blunkett, former Labour home secretary, on how politicians and officials should respond to a more demanding age. This is not a Covid review, but a general inquiry into how government works – or doesn’t – with the benefit of Covid experience. 

Serving officials told of a frustration with bureaucracy, an appetite for managerial responsibility and for the mix of skills bought in or developed to deal with the pandemic. From serving and past ministers and advisors in the main parties, from top officials and from experience abroad, as well as from academics, specialists and consultants, we heard about the value of outside experts and noted the importance of a robust ethical framework when the worlds of business and politics mix. We heard how the digital and data revolution can inform policy and personalise services at the core of modern government. But a clear finding: the public needs to trust that people, not algorithms, are ultimately accountable for decisions that may determine their lives.

Polling, specially commissioned for our report, found that nearly 60% of voters support moving civil servants from London to regional hubs. Such hubs should work with local authorities and organisations in all four nations to invest, inform national policy from the ground up and bring services closer to their customers. They should attract a much greater diversity of people and skills into government service – to challenge the groupthink that can be a feature of Whitehall processes – and widen training and opportunities. Notably, high profile public service during the pandemic should attract recruits to services that may previously have struggled to compete with better paid private sector jobs. New talent, alongside those in the civil service who have delivered so much during the past year, deserves good leadership. 

This means the kind of focused leadership No.10 was able to bring to the recent Integrated Security and Defence Review or to the vaccine programme. It means flexibility for ministers to inform the directions they set with the best expert advice (within a clear and enforced ethical framework) and for more attention to developing ministerial expertise throughout their careers, from portfolios in opposition to training in government. Spads need training on the job, too. Grouping of departments by issue under cabinet committees can provide broader experience for ministers and officials.

The jobs of top officials in departments are as demanding, if not more so, than many of those in the private sector and can’t be remunerated on such scales. But key roles do need to be recalibrated to be both better rewarded and made more accountable. The report recommends, for example, only renewing the contracts of permanent secretaries who can show a track record of reform.

Careers need to be better managed, with talented staff receiving promotion and better pay in post as they develop expertise. This needs to be done by role and individual, not as any overall relaxation of spending discipline. Leadership and responsibility bring clarity and allow duplicated functions to be cut and money saved. Managers must be expected to recruit and manage the teams they lead, and to be accountable for performance. These functions are too often delegated to spreadsheets, outsourced to HR and frankly buried in process. Officials we heard from, often in confidence, wanted more flexibility to lead and manage their teams. They should get it – but with that more accountability and reward.

Such changes aren’t easy. But the past year has shown what can be done. Those lessons need to be baked in now for the long term, for everyday government and in preparation for whatever the next crisis might be.

Dame Patricia Hodgson is Chair of Policy Exchange’s Reform of Government Commission

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