Fundamental review of civil service pay needed to drive reform: departing Sedwill’s Whitehall reflections

Cabinet secretary sets out possible roadmap for government, including new model to drive service integration and performance framework

By Richard Johnstone

28 Jul 2020

The next cabinet secretary should carry out a fundamental review of civil service pay and a new National Performance Framework for government, departing cab sec Sir Mark Sedwill has said.

Reflecting on his time in the role at the Blavatnik School of Government yesterday, Sedwill, who will step down next month, said civil service reform was “rightly back on the agenda” and set out some of his views on what changes were needed.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has set out some details of the government's plan for reform,  which are also being led by the prime minister's top adviser Dominic Cummings, who has long called for wide-ranging reforms to Whitehall.

in his speech, Sedwill called Whitehall the nucleus of the system of public service, with a responsibility “to catalyse the entire system to implement the programme of the government: public, private and third sectors, communities and citizens”.

Attempts to implement the government's plans to "level up" the country are " unlikely to prosper" without changes, he said.

He set out a two-pronged approach to change how departments work: integrated policymaking in priority areas though an approach based on the Fusion Doctrine that he developed as national security adviser; and a new performance framework to monitor performance in other areas.

This should be accompanied by "a fundamental review of pay, progression, of pensions" across the civil service to encourage officials to stay in posts and develop deep expertise in policy areas.

Lighting the fusion

The Fusion Doctrine was developed as part of the 2017 National Security Capability Review, and is intended to better integrate security and defence policy with the UK’s economic and international policy objectives through greater horizontal coordination across departments.

It also is intended to improve system leadership by getting ministers and officials to convene the sectors for which they are responsible, not just deploy the capabilities which they control, according to Sedwill.

There was a need to ensure that the horizontal structures were strong as the vertical ones all across government in the future, he said.

Such an approach could integrate provision in what Sedwill called “the knottiest social policy issues” like prevention or early intervention but “the answer is not to create another central unit for every cross-cutting issue or every priority”.

He added: “The national security experience suggests that the best bet is to identify a few key government priorities which require the involvement of several departments and their sectors, apply the full-fat collaborative model to those, allocate resources to those priorities first during Spending Reviews, and use a National Performance Framework to monitor departments’ progress against the rest.”

Different governments would use this approach for different priority areas, he said, but each would have a combined budget and be led by ministerial taskforces with officials, external experts and practitioners, and be overseen by the relevant cabinet committees.

Other areas of policy could be monitored by a new National Performance Framework, he said, with departments able to get on with delivery so long as it met the standards.

A strategic framework that has been developed around Fusion, which Sedwill said extends this approach from security, prosperity and influence overseas to areas including the environment, health and wellbeing and to the UK's political union, could form the basis of a UK national performance framework.  This would assess the work of government independently against international criteria and comparators, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, international ndices of competitiveness and  NATO criteria of capability and readiness, and would mirror an approach already in place in the Scottish Government.

Such an two-pronged approach would allow departments to get on with delivery where they were able to, and focus collaborative efforts where they were most needed, according to the cab sec.

“For example, as long their programmes are designed to meet the government’s agenda to raise skills and thus productivity, [the Department for Education] should just be left to get on with reforms to further education," he said.

"But they will need other departments and their sectoral partners to help crack some of the most challenging issues with vulnerable children for which they are also responsible. This is invariably the case with prevention or early intervention on the knottiest social policy issues.”

Pay reform plan

Sedwill said he agreed with the long-running critique that there was too much churn in the civil service, which he said was partly down to “a decade of pay restraint”.

He said there should be a fundamental rule not only of pay and conditions but also of the ACOBA rules governing what jobs senior officials can take when leaving government, which he said "impede interchange with the private sector for people rising through the system, incentivise the solid but unspectacular to time-serve, and propel churn among the most talented".

"It does need to be a comprehensive look. Whitehall needs all the talent we can get, so we must continue the effort to stimulate interest from people who wouldn’t normally think of the civil service or even the public service,” he said.

He also said the government should encourage the use of red teams to challenge policy as it is being developed – a reform long favoured by Cummings, and which Sedwill said had been implemented in national security policy following the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

And he said there was a need to attract and promote people from underrepresented groups, especially black civil servants and those from ethnic minorities.

Sedwill added: “We tend to refer to diversity and inclusion, but, in my view, the real answer is inclusion and diversity, i.e. an inclusive culture is the bedrock of a truly diverse institution.

"The Black Lives Matter movement reminded us that, irrespective of the numbers of staff in the civil service at whatever level, the experiences of ethnic minorities of government and of public service, whether as officials within it or citizens depending on it, remain highly differentiated.

“The 2020s must be the decade in which this becomes a thing of the past. Moreover, new talent should complement not juxtapose, and be embedded across the system.”

'The most ambitious peacetime reforms since Atlee'

Along with efforts to move more civil servants outside of London, Sedwill said the changes he was proposing would amount to the most ambitious peace-time reforms to Whitehall and the wider governance system since Attlee”.

He ackowledged such reforms would coincide with major challenges for government including managing the recovery from Covid-19 and the immediate impact of Brexit, and implementing the government’s manifesto pledges.

“Bandwidth would be an issue,” he said. “But, in my view, trying to transform the economy and society through an untransformed government system is unlikely to prosper.

"And so I hope that Michael Gove and my successor and Alex Chisholm will have the remit to press ahead under parliamentary support accordingly.”

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