By Suzannah.Brecknell

17 Apr 2014

Gordon Brown launched a set of Whitehall efficiency initiatives; the coalition ramped things up a gear. And as this Parliament begins to wind down, civil service reform is back on the agenda again. Suzannah Brecknell reports

As parties begin to prepare for next year’s general election, civil service reform may not seem an obvious topic to focus on. But the matter received an unusual amount of attention last week, with both the launch of a new cross-party research group, and the announcement of a set of Labour policies designed to increase the diversity of the civil service.

Even as Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband gave a key speech describing the party’s ideas on growth and devolution, his fellow shadow cabinet member Michael Dugher (pictured above) was discussing his proposed reforms to the Fast Stream. Since Dugher is shadow Cabinet Office minister, it made sense for him to discuss the civil service alongside the party’s new plans for regional ministers – but the promises he set out also chime with Labour’s attempt to position itself as a ‘one nation’ party. Just as Miliband has spoken about creating a “politics which is truly rooted in every community of the country”, Dugher set out plans which – he hopes – will help to create a civil service that reflects all parts of those communities.

“Too often, the civil service is not open enough to the society it seeks to serve,” Dugher told an audience at think-tank the IPPR, giving a range of figures designed to demonstrate that “the civil service resembles a closed shop to many who already feel that government is distant and remote from their lives.” The figures Dugher used were rather disingenuous: for example, he compared a rise in the proportion of black and ethnic minority (BME) civil servants under Labour to a drop in actual numbers of BME staff under the Coalition – his figures didn’t show that BME civil servants have suffered disproportionately in the recent waves of job cuts. Nonetheless, his underlying point about under-representation of minority groups has merit: just last month, retiring Treasury Solicitor Sir Paul Jenkins complained that progress on getting BME staff into the senior civil service has “stalled, and it is now getting worse”.

To solve the problem, Labour wants to start with the Fast Stream, ensuring that the scheme gives “those from ordinary backgrounds but with exceptional talents the opportunity to be part of government.” Under Labour, Dugher said, there would be targets for the number of “successful BME and working class candidates entering the Fast Stream programme, reflective of the proportion of national graduates from those backgrounds”, plus an expansion of the existing Diversity Fast Stream Summer Internship programme and a fast-track onto the Fast Stream for its interns.

The focus on BME access to the Fast Stream is important. Analysis of the Fast Stream’s diversity data carried out by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and published in February showed that while 17% of applicants to the scheme in 2012 were from a BME background, compared to 17.9% of the total graduate population, just 1.5% of these applicants were successful, compared to 2.8% of white applicants. The CSC noted there are particular concerns that BME candidates tend to de-select themselves early in the process, and perform relatively poorly on online psychometric tests. There were similar concerns for working-class candidates, who make up just 6% of applicants and also perform poorly in the online tests. 

So it may seem that if Labour – or any future government – wants to improve the proportion of successful BME and working class candidates, a good place to start would be by redesigning or reconsidering those psychometric tests. But the CSC warned against jumping to conclusions about the solutions to this challenge, noting that “the Fast Stream does not appear to have the data to enable it better to understand the  differences in the performance of different groups of candidates in the application and assessment process.” Without this data, it continued, “it is simply not possible for the Fast Stream to identify the nature of the problem and therefore what action will be most effective in improving diversity outcomes.”

Nor will improving Fast Stream diversity be the end of the story: it’s the senior civil service which is the least diverse group. When asked by CSW whether he thinks representation targets would be useful across the civil service, Dugher replies that “targets are important at every level, because the figures are pretty shocking [and] it’s only by looking at the figures that you can see things have got worse. The civil service ought to be monitoring when things are not going as they should, and that’s something that applies right the way up the service.”
He adds that he was “really struck by the figures on women” – particularly the fact that women hold two-thirds of the lowest-paid jobs, but only a quarter of the highest-paid jobs in the service. “Unless you’re aware of that, how can you do anything about it?”, he asks.

Dugher describes the Fast Stream targets as a “snapshot of an agenda that we have”, saying  “We’ve set out a big problem, and we have part of the answer; reforming the Fast Stream is not all of the answer, and equally it’s not all of the reforms that we want to make to the civil service.” In his speech, Dugher also made another connection between Whitehall reform and broader social change: changes within the service must reflect bigger movements outside it, he argued: “Reforms designed to increase the representativeness and effectiveness of the civil service must sit as part of a wider agenda about social mobility.” 

Meanwhile, politicians from all three main parties were launching a new “independent, non-party research initiative” to consider how to make our system of government more effective. Led by two former ministers, Labour’s John Healey and the Conservatives’ Nick Herbert, ‘Governup’ will work on research projects – covering topics from civil service skills and the role of politicians to the future of devolved government and the role of the central departments in governance. It aims to publish the first of its findings before the next general election, taking advantage of what advisory board member Dan Corry – a former civil servant and special adviser – describes as a “golden window of opportunity” to build consensus among the parties, all of which have both recent experience in government and a fair chance of returning to power soon.

Governup was launched on the same day as a House of Commons debate on civil service reform, in which Public Administration Select Committee chair Bernard Jenkin continued his campaign to establish a parliamentary commission on the future of the civil service. Jenkin welcomed the new organisation, but insisted that a parliamentary commission was still needed since “only Parliament can put the necessary authority behind a programme of reform: a parliamentary commission could not be ignored.”

Corry argues, however, that Governup’s current lack of authority is not a concern: the organisation is trying to stimulate debate, rather than implement change. “There may be room for a parliamentary commission or something like that, but I think at the minute we need to be churning ideas around,” he says. “Eventually you’ve got to get down to nuts and bolts, but at the minute the question is: what is the problem? What’s going wrong? Why is it going wrong? What are the solutions? It may well be that other forums then need to take some of that up and [implement] it.”

Founder Nick Herbert told the Commons that “the concept of a parliamentary commission – an old fashioned, inquisitorial model – is entirely wrong”, and emphasised the need for a body which would look forwards rather than back. Governup certainly seems to have clout, not just to generate debate but also to influence implementation: its advisory board includes figures such as government’s lead non-executive director Lord Browne and PAC chair Margaret Hodge. It will also work in partnership with think tanks including the Institute for Government, and will soon appoint a reference panel of civil servants.

As the end of the Parliament hoves into view, MPs – left idle by the light legislative timetable – are reviewing the government’s track record of turning its ideas into workable, delivered policies; and many pin the blame for failures on a dysfunctional system of government. Few believe that our settlement can’t be significantly improved, with Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory politicians all having experienced challenges around – for example – accountability, skills, workforce management, investment and minister-civil servant relationships. Their solutions and approaches may differ, but consideration of the problem cannot be a bad thing. In fact, it should probably run wider still. Politicians on all sides stepped up last week to give their opinions on our system of government; hopefully, at some point the people who operate it every day – civil servants themselves – will also be given an opportunity to contribute their views.

See also:

News: Labour plans Fast Stream targets to improve BME recruitment

News: Jenkins: delays to diversity plan ‘profoundly disappointing’

Interview: Sir Paul Jenkins


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