Civil servants ‘deeply frustrated’ with Whitehall’s flaws and eager for change, research finds

Interviews with policy professionals uncover reduced faith in senior leadership and shift in relationship with ministers
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By Jim Dunton

30 Oct 2023

A research project that has interviewed dozens of current and former civil servants to garner attitudes to their work has found anger over increasingly “short-termist” governments and a “lack of admiration” for senior leadership in departments.

The project, conducted by former civil servant Amy Gandon for think tank Reform, also records a “noticeable shift” in relationships between ministers and officials and frustration at the obstacles to delivering “impact” for the public.

Gandon’s paper, Civil Unrest, is based on structured conversations with 50 past and present officials who have worked in and around the policy profession in recent years.

She found interviewees were “not only aware of the service’s flaws but deeply frustrated by them and eager for change”.

Respondents reported feeling that government had become more reactive and short-termist in recent years, and less anchored in a stable, long-term vision for the future. Many felt a more politically volatile environment meant more effort being spent on announcements and “good news stories” than on long-term solutions and implementation.

Interview subjects also said there had been a palpable change in relationships between ministers and civil servants in recent years, with “mutual mistrust” making it difficult to give honest advice and make decisions efficiently.

Forty-seven percent of interviewees said there had been a “marked decline” in accord between politicians and officials in recent years; 39% linked higher ministerial turnover with worsening outcomes.

Gandon said that some civil servants felt ministers were right to suspect officials of political bias, but others felt their duty to challenge had been “misinterpreted as resistance”.

Senior civil service leaders were also characterised as having become “less able or confident” to give ministers challenging advice over the past few years – a time when there have been several high-profile sackings of permanent secretaries. The paper found 39% of interviewees report a “dampening of ambition” to become senior leaders.

One anonymous interviewee quoted in the report said: “Senior people are scared, and not willing to defend their advice to ministers because they don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing or not giving them what they want.”

Another added: “If our permanent secretary is being shouted at and is unable to do anything, and the prime minister doesn’t believe a report [on ministerial bullying], then that creates the culture of ‘I don’t want to challenge. I might lose my job’.”

Elsewhere, contributors to the report expressed concerns about the civil service’s inability to manage and retain talent over the past few years. They said “significant demands” including the pressures of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic had led to “inexperienced staff being recruited and promoted”.

Report author Gandon said the project had uncovered “areas of overlap” between the aspirations for the civil service expressed by interviewees and those of some of Whitehall’s “most high-profile detractors”.

She cited a hunger for greater efficiency, more specialist expertise, and more robust approaches to poor performance.

Gandon said designing reforms would require an in-depth understanding of the current system. But she added that there was a sense that the practices of “user-centred design” – celebrated in policy manuals across Whitehall – did not apply to the reform of government itself.

“There will be many reasons why previous reform attempts have not had the desired effect,” she said.  “However, a hostile or antagonistic approach from political figures does not appear to have helped things, generating a defensive ‘immune response’ from the civil servants ideally needed to carry the torch.”

Civil Unrest presents seven proposals for reform. One of them is a call for better “in-role reward” for civil servants. It suggests that a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to explore the impact of different levels of in-role pay increases on high-turnover roles.

Another proposal is scrapping the civil service’s competency-based Success Profiles recruitment framework in favour of models that demand more specific skills, knowledge and experience for the role being sought.

Better incentives for robust management of poor performance are also part of the package of recommendations, as well as "more formal and ongoing training for policy professionals", informed by a  "20- to 30-year horizon scanning exercise of the skills that the civil service will need in a 21st century model of government" and a reassertion of  "baseline standards for the levels of experience and skill at each grade to counter grade inflation and identify skills gaps to be filled with deliberate learning and development programmes".

The report also recommends government should pilot "smaller, more senior and more specialist policy teams" and "develop stronger organisational norms around delegation, empowerment and experimentation".

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