By Suzannah.Brecknell

27 Aug 2013

Are you thinking as far ahead as the best brains in business? Suzannah Brecknell, listening in at Civil Service Live, heard from the men who argue that your country needs you to keep your eyes on the far horizon.

It’s not often that the civil service is described as a competitive advantage for the UK. But that’s the view of departing business department non-executive director (NED) Andrew Witty. The very things which frustrate some politicians about the civil service – its permanence and impartiality – should be viewed, he suggested at Civil Service Live in London last month, as a vital tool to support industrial growth.

Witty was commending the government’s industrial strategies, which aim to encourage growth in key sectors by setting out commitments from both ministers and business leaders over a multi-year period. He noted that, since investors value long-term certainty, these plans will only succeed if they’re not derailed by political changes.

Asked by CSW how civil servants, who must be impartial and serve the government of the day, might help to ensure this continuity, Witty first argued that NEDs have an important role to play. They should be “intensely apolitical”, he said, so they are “talking about and articulating the benefits of [industrial strategies] to people of all political persuasions.”

Civil servants, he continued, should start making plans on “a similar timeline” to industrial plans. “Don’t just plan between now and May 2015 [but set out] a decade-long plan for what you believe you can do to help this industry,” he urged.

He suggested this would create “a real point of reference for new politicians”, who would be forced to prove their own ideas were better than the existing plan.

“These industries and investors want to see long-term predictability,” he continued, “and I think this could become one of the great competitive advantages for the UK.”

“Lots of other countries can’t get this right,” he added. “Why? Because the civil service is deeply politicised, so when the politics change the civil service changes.” To maximise our advantage, he challenged the government to produce “great plans and policy strategy which has a long enough horizon to bridge across [elections]”.

Though Witty suggested that the political cycle is a short one, former MP James Purnell – now the director of strategy at the BBC – disagreed. In a session on the effective use of strategy, he suggested that the five-year parliamentary horizon is “more than most people would plan to,” and welcomed the policy continuity that should result from the prime minister’s belief in leaving ministers in post for long enough to make a difference.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that it is hard for civil servants to think strategically. “It can become easy to fall into: ‘Well, we’re just here to work out the means; we’re not here to set the objectives’,” he said. While acknowledging that is “true to a certain extent”, he argued officials should still “have goals for the country”, and provide advice based on long-term thinking. “Just because you don’t have political objectives, that doesn’t mean you can’t think long-term,” he concluded.

Someone who knows about political pressure, Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson, acknowledged that it can be hard for civil servants to consider the long-term picture amid the day to day reality of deadlines and pressure from ministers to achieve their reforms in time to influence voters by the next election. Nonetheless, at a session on financial management across Whitehall, Macpherson echoed Witty’s comments with this challenge: “Politicians’ timelines are always determined by the next general election,” he said, but civil servants must set their sights “higher, longer”.

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