By Matt.Ross

05 Dec 2010

Permanent secretaries are clear about the task ahead, says Matt Ross: supporting and empowering their staff.

2010 has, for many people within the civil service, been an extraordinary year. These are generally strange and unprecedented times, of course: even when I oversaw my first Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Up, soon after joining Civil Service World in mid-2008, it was clear that the civil service was facing (and, in many cases, overcoming) huge and growing challenges. But the tasks facing the civil service now – tasks of structural and process reform; of staff management; of policymaking and delivery; and, above all, of saving money while meeting the population’s needs – are of quite a different order.

First, let me thank all our contributors for writing. We hope that this Special Report provides permanent secretaries and staff alike with a valuable window into the current thinking of civil service leaders, and it wouldn’t be possible without the help and support of those leaders. The report also, of course, offers a fascinating comparison with years past – and the contrast with 2008 is revealing. Then, four of our 20 permanent secretaries cited climate change as a key challenge, while five spoke about capability reviews. Seven wrote about the need to improve leadership, staff development and skills, and a further seven about organisational change – and they meant departmental reshuffles conducted, largely, to meet the political needs of the prime minister, rather than the coalition’s widespread abolition of arm’s length bodies, wholesale structural change and constitutional reform.

In 2008, 14 permanent secretaries wrote about the challenges associated with the credit crunch; but they were talking about supporting the population during the recession and stimulating the economy. Only one, amazingly, focused on improving efficiency – an issue which, we said at the time, was “set to grow on officials’ horizons during 2009.”

It certainly did. Asked to name the biggest management challenge facing the civil service in late 2010, half of our permanent secretaries have written about the task of reducing expenditure while retaining service quality. Five more cite the need to maintain morale at a time of falling head counts.

There is almost as much concensus about how that challenge can be overcome. Eight focus on good management and leadership – and the emphasis is very much on leading with the staff, rather than handing down instructions from on high: six say that staff engagement will be crucial if we are to achieve more for less, while nine emphasise the importance of communicating with civil servants.

A few outliers are worth mentioning here. Along with Ian Watmore, only the cabinet secretary mentions pace as a key element of success in 2011. Only Bruce Robinson highlights better performance management (in 2008, similarly, only one respondent focused on the topic). And only John Suffolk, the departing chief information officer, calls for the civil service to consider the challenges of five to 10 years hence, to dramatically change its approach to problem-solving – and to start afresh in considering whether its current leaders are right for the task.

Amidst the focus on challenges ahead, though, there is plenty of positivity about the achievements of 2009 – and about the current opportunities, which our permanent secretaries identify not only in coalition government, but also in the cuts themselves. Eight respondents express their pride in the civil service’s preparation for, and management of, the general election’s inconclusive result. Four say they are proud of the way in which civil servants have responded to the coalition’s new policy agenda. And four note their pleasure at the way in which coalition government has formalised decision-making processes within Whitehall and Westminster.

As for those opportunities – well, three respondents enthuse about how the localism agenda could improve services; and five argue that the cuts will force the civil service to embrace radical reforms, leading to better services that meet the population’s needs at lower cost to the taxpayer. Gus O’Donnell may use milder language, talking of “innovation”, but his sentiments are similar. And there is one theme that links almost all our writers’ comments: success, ultimately, will depend on top officials’ ability to inform, empower and enable their staff to achieve the gargantuan tasks that are being asked of them.

Permanent Secretary round-ups:

Sir Gus O'Donnell
Cabinet Office 

Bob Kerslake
Communities and Local Government 

Ursula Brennan
Ministry of Defence

Suma Chakrabarti 
Ministry of Justice

Paul Jenkins
Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Service

Dame Helen Ghosh
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 

Lin Homer 
UK Border Agency

Sir Peter Housden
Scottish Government

Dame Gill Morgan
Welsh Assembly Government

Martin Donnelly
Business, Innovation and Skills

David Bell
Department for Education

Darra Singh
Jobcentre Plus

Dame Lesley Strathie

Minouche Shafik
International Development

Ian Watmore
Cabinet Office

John Suffolk
Cabinet Office

Sir David Normington
Home Office

Tom Scholar
Second permanent secretary, HM Treasury

Simon Fraser 
Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sir Leigh Lewis
Department for Work and Pensions

Bruce Robinson
Northern Ireland Civil Service

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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