‘No longer world class’: Commission calls for civil service overhaul

Report claims Whitehall skill gaps and “running policy sores” illustrate need for improvement
Nick Herbert PA images

By Jim Dunton

04 Nov 2020

A newly-created panel that has the ear of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has published a 35-page report setting out why it believes Whitehall is unfit for purpose and “in need of fundamental reform”.

The Commission for Smarter Government said there was “serious dysfunctionality” in the UK’s machinery of government and that it was “no-longer world class”, with outdated practices for managing people and skills among the areas in need of urgent reform.

Its What’s gone wrong with Whitehall? report also points to the government’s poor track record of preventing deaths from Covid-19 and longer-term “running policy sores”, such as the failure of successive administrations to reform social care as examples of the need for change.

The commission is an offshoot of former policing and criminal justice minister Lord Nick Herbert’s Project for Modern Democracy think tank. 

Members include former Department for Education perm sec Lord Michael Bichard, former Home Office and Department for International Development perm sec Sir Suma Chakrabarti, former government lead non-executive director Sir Ian Cheshire and Herbert himself.  Also on the panel are Baroness Simone Finn, a former adviser on civil service reform to Lord Francis Maude; Baroness Camilla Cavendish, former head of the No.10 policy unit; and former HM Revenue and customs chief digital officer Jacky Wright.

Cabinet Office minister Gove referred directly to the commission in his Ditchley lecture in June, describing it as one of the sources of “ideas on transforming how we deliver” that ministers needed to listen to.

The commission describes What’s gone wrong with Whitehall? as a discussion paper, rather than a manifesto for change, and cited Moodys' recent downgrading of the UK’s credit rating and the nation’s standing in the World Bank’s governance ratings as evidence of its claims.

The report concluded that while there are “many strengths in the UK system of government” the commission is “driven by an increasing concern that, against the background of national and global change and challenges, it is not world class”.  This is despite the UK civil service being named top of the Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government’s International Civil Service Effectiveness Index.

The commission said the next stage of government reform needs to be based on a big picture, tackling the main elements, including the challenge the centre of government faces in pulling the whole of government together to ensure that its priorities are delivered and more effective use of performance and financial data.

“The roles and performance of both politicians and the civil service, and the relationship between them, need to change,” it said. “Above all, the government needs to find a way to ensure that initial energy and commitment are maintained, plans are carried through, it learns from mistakes and improves, and recognises that change has to be continuous.” 

Former chancellor George Osborne was due to appear at an online evidence-gathering session of the commission today.

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