Michael Bichard (second from right) addressing civil servants in 1997 as Department for Education and Employment perm sec with the incoming Labour ministerial team. From left to right: Andrew Smith, Baroness Blackstone, Estelle Morris, Kim Howells, Stephens Byers, Alan Howarth, Michael Bichard, David Blunkett Photo: Alamy
Thirty years ago I moved from being a chief executive in local government to run one of the government’s largest agencies. At the time such a move was unheard of and many of my new civil service colleagues assumed that I would in due course recross the great divide. Some were disappointed that I chose to stay! Years before, when I began my career in local government, it was equally unusual to switch between county boroughs, county councils and districts. Each had their own culture and when I joined a county council from a county borough, I experienced what it must be like to be a scholarship boy at a public school.
So, why do these anecdotes matter and why is the Commission for Smart Government suggesting that we should once and for all banish these bureaucratic divides by creating just one unified public service? First of all because these artificial boundaries work to the disadvantage of citizens by reinforcing the fragmented nature of our public services. They make it less likely that services will be ‘joined up’ in ways that make sense to real people with real life problems which don’t easily fit the rigid bureaucratic boxes we create. The boundaries mean that providers do not see themselves as part of a common purpose and consequently services are less accessible, more siloed and even, on occasions, in competition. Real people want quality services defined by their needs, not by the providers’ convenience and outdated structures.
Many will be quick to point to evidence which shows that the wall between the civil service and local government is not as impenetrable as it once was. But it does still exist and is one of the reasons why the centre is reluctant to devolve power and responsibilities to localities. During the pandemic we have seen too many examples of the centre failing to trust local providers. Data has not been shared; services have been over centralised and local knowledge has been ignored in part, at least, because officials do not see themselves as part of a common enterprise. And, sadly on this occasion, lives have been lost as a consequence. A unified public service would create the sense of common purpose you need in a crisis and make it more likely that information and power was shared if that benefits the citizen.
A unified service would also help ensure that specialist knowledge was easily shared; that the diversity of experience which exists in different parts of the sector was used to enhance creativity and innovation and that there was common training available to all public service workers. Finally, it would reduce the likelihood of blame being shifted or borders being defended in ways which use up scarce resources and energy and leave the public in despair. The change will take time but it is already long overdue. Let’s just get on with it!
Lord Bichard KCB is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords and until 2021 was chair of the National Audit Office. He was formerly permanent secretary at the Department for Education and the first Director of the Institute for Government. Before moving to the Department for Education, Bichard was chief executive of Brent Council and Gloucestershire County Council, then chief executive of the Benefits Agency.