Civil service needs more 'accountability for outcomes', chief Treasury secretary says

More "urgency" is needed, says minister leading public sector productivity review
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The civil service must be made to have a greater sense of “accountability for outcomes” to drive productivity, chief secretary to the Treasury John Glen has said.

In an interview with CSW’s sister publication The House, Glen, who is leading a cross-government review of public sector productivity, said “there isn’t the degree of urgency that I would like” in the civil service.

Reflecting on his pre-politics days as a consultant at professional services firm Accenture, he said: “If I wasn’t bringing in fees, or the client I was working for wasn’t happy with the work, then there would be clear outcomes for me. I think people are frustrated [that] that isn’t always clear to people in civil service.” 

“The traditional social contract that you have a lower salary, higher pension and job security doesn’t mean you can’t be accountable for delivery,” he added.

Glen, whose review will aim to “deliver more for less” across the public sector, said this could be addressed by providing incentives to “reward civil servants” for doing things “better and differently”.

However, he declined to elaborate on what rewards could be used, noting that his review is set for publication in the coming weeks, alongside the Autumn Statement on 22 November. 

The review is also considering scope for "demand reduction" to ease pressures on public services. As an example, Glen said it is possible to "massively reduce" the costs of a child going into care through earlier intervention and using the "kinship model" where children are cared for by relatives other than their parents.

"These are the sorts of things in every area, that if we fully apply, we can reduce costs and be more productive," he said.

The government is considering new workplace entitlements for kinship carers, including more paid leave. It is preparing to launch a £9m training and support programme, as well as the first national kinship care strategy at the end of the year. 

AI 'not a panacea'

The productivity review, which was commissioned by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in June, is also looking at how AI can become a “massive transformer of productivity and innovation”, Glen said.

But the minister said his work so far has uncovered that the public sector does not quite yet have the “high degree of readiness” for AI expected of it.

He said he wanted to see more departmental pilots using AI, like an ongoing trial by the Department for Work and Pensions using algorithms to help detect benefits fraud and “doing a better job of matching people with jobs”. He suggested it could also be used by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to help make the criminal justice system more efficient and “stop us wasting court time”.

And he said AI could help cut down on administrative spend, including at HM Revenue and Customs, which receives 136 million items of post in a year.  

However, the minister stressed that AI will not be “a panacea for everything”, adding: “We need intelligent leadership, to actually lead transformation; that’s going to be difficult.”

Diversity and inclusion roles 'distract from the core purpose of government'

Glen also said he wants to look at cutting down on diversity and inclusion jobs in government – which he said “seem at times to spawn a whole industry” – as part of a wider push to reduce the size of the civil service.

“I don’t – we don’t – want superfluous activities that distract from the core purpose of government, which is to deliver quality public services efficiently for taxpayers,” he said.

“I’m nervous that it’s one thing to have a policy, but another to have an army of people measuring it.” 

He added: “People are very nervous about challenging this sort of expenditure, because they fear they’ll be accused of being anti diversity and inclusion, which isn’t the case. But it is legitimate for us to ask: ‘What’s proportionate here? What are you trying to achieve?’” 

Glen also said civil servants should be expected to work from their departmental offices, rather than from home, and the process of getting more people into offices “needs to accelerate”. 

“Over time, relationships are less strong and collaborations are less intense [as a result of not coming into the office], and the purpose of work is to deliver outcomes, be it public service delivery or productivity in the private sector,” he said.

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