Opinion: Why the Declaration on Government Reform shows the time for change has come

Civil service reform is not a zero sum game where ministers win and civil servants lose, says Martin Wheatley, the research director of the Commission for Smart Government. Now is the time to make positive change for all
Michael Gove delivers government reform speech at Govern Smarter screengrab

By Martin Wheatley

23 Jun 2021

The Commission for Smart Government was delighted to host Michael Gove to give a speech explaining the thinking and approach behind this week’s Declaration on Government Reform.

The speech clearly signals that, for this government, reform is not a niche topic, suffering from lack of sustained top-level political engagement, as it has been too often. Not only is the government sticking to the commitment, and underlying analysis, communicated in Mr Gove’s speech a year ago at Ditchley, it has moved them on into the strong beginnings of a programme for actual change.

Above all, the government clearly recognises that reforming the system is not an optional extra or distraction from its primary interests. Rather, if it wants to be successful in terms the public see and understanding, recovering from the pandemic, levelling up, and delivering net zero, it needs to put in place radical changes to the way government goes about its business.

We also welcome the new spirit of alignment between political and civil service leaders. We believe passionately that reform is not a zero-sum game, somehow about inflicting pain on the civil service to make life better for ministers. The truth is that both ministers and the civil service have so much to gain from effective reform, but it cannot be brought about in a spirit of mutual hostility. Mr Gove’s message of “sunshine, not hard rain”, is therefore completely on the money.

The commitment, and the analysis, are strongly aligned with our own. The declaration and speech encourage us to continue with the last stages of our work programme, which will, we hope, build on and add value to this week’s announcement in two ways.

First, it is not surprising that, at this stage, the declaration is in places clearer about what the government wants to happen, than about the details of the “how”? We think we can play a useful role in offering an external view, informed by the diverse senior level experience of our members, and our international research. For example, our recent papers on digital, project management, and departmental boards will, we hope, be helpful in turning the direction of travel suggested in the Declaration into actual changes.

Second, responding to Mr Gove’s openness to critical challenge, we think there are some vital aspects of reform which need to be added to the mix. In our view, the declaration does not say enough about resource management, about which we have made radical reform proposals in our finance and business planning paper. And can the declaration’s ambitions for focus, and a smarter relationship between departments and the centre be achieved without rethinking the structure of the centre of government? We say no, and have published a paper on that. References in the speech to local leadership need to be carried through into specific proposals about a stronger partnership between national and local. Our devolution paper is full of ideas about how to do that, and we will be saying more about it in the coming weeks.

There is a pattern in civil service reform that it tends to accelerate positively when the ‘stars aligned’, with strong political commitment, right from the top, and circumstances which create an imperative for change. Such a phase of alignment appears to be in place, and the commission will continue to contribute to the opportunity to accelerate reform and create truly world-class government.

Martin Wheatley is the research director of the Commission for Smart Government (https://www.governsmarter.org/)

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