Gove pledges to reform civil service training and 'whirligig of transfers and promotions'

Government needs a “proper, and properly-resourced campus for training”, Cabinet Office minister says
Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has unveiled an ambitious vision of civil service reform – with better training, more rigorous evaluation of programmes and greater incentives to stay in key roles.

The government must learn from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former US president who launched a set of major public-service, regulatory and financial reforms known as the New Deal following the Great Depression, Gove told attendees at the annual Ditchley Lecture this weekend.

His speech came ahead of the prime minister, Boris Johnson's announcement yesterday that he would use a "Rooseveltian" £5bn New Deal to spur the UK's economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Gove said if government was to deliver reform in areas including technical education, the environment, international development, housing and planning, digital infrastructure and procurement, “it must also reform itself”.

“As FDR recognised, the structures, ambitions and priorities of the government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and endure,” he said.

“It is part of my job in the Cabinet Office to help drive change. To demonstrate the good that government can do, to reaffirm the nobility of service to the public, to strive every day to use the money, and the powers, the people have vested in us to improve their lives.”

One way government must reform itself is by developing high-level, specialist knowledge and skills within departments, he said – both through training and by addressing staff churn.

“For many decades now we have neglected to ensure that senior members of the civil service have all the basic skills required to serve government, and our citizens, well,” the cabinet minister said.

He added: “I owe a personal debt to many great civil servants who have helped secure lasting change, who have warned me off foolish initiatives and who have demonstrated the very best in rigorous policy thinking. But there are systemic problems which mean we often lose institutional memory and fail to build on hard-won success.”

Gove said that while people “rightly” criticise the rate of turnover among politicians, “far less noticed and just as, if not more, damaging, is the whirligig of civil service transfers and promotions”.

“The current structure of the civil service career ladder means that promotion comes from switching roles, and departments, with determined regularity,” he said.

“So, if we are to make the most of the amazing talent that we have in such abundance in the UK civil service, we need to both train better and incentivise more smartly. We need to ensure that those in government have access to teaching which develops deep knowledge.”

'Vapid abstractions'

The Cabinet Office minister said too much existing civil service training was “about vapid abstractions such as ‘collaborating better’ rather than about what works in classroom instruction or how to interrogate climate modelling or to find out what really goes on in the preparation of Crown Prosecution cases which leads to so many cracked trials”.

To reform this training, Gove said a “proper, and properly-resourced campus for training those in government” was needed.

The former education secretary did not say what form this campus would take, but stressed that it must not be “preoccupied with the latest coaching theology or sub-business school jargon but equips the many hugely talented people within the civil service to become as knowledgeable in their public areas as consultant surgeons, chancery barristers and biochemistry professors are in theirs”.

“And, more than that, we need to ensure that basic writing, meeting chairing and time management skills are de rigueur for all policy civil servants,” he added.

He said training reforms must address skills gaps, in particular a dearth of officials with “qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions”. “But so many policy and implementation decisions depend on understanding mathematical reasoning.”

Training must also equip civil servants to “make a tight, evidence-rich, fact-based, argument which doesn’t waste words or evade hard choices”, Gove said.

“Submissions, the papers which are prepared to guide ministerial decisions, and which were once the glory of our civil service, have become in far too many cases formulaic, over-long, jargon-heavy and back-covering,” he said.

'Widespread rigour is missing'

Gove said he envisioned a government that was more “rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects”.

He said just 8% of the 108 programmes in the Government Major Projects Portfolio, “only 8% are actually assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively and brought about the desired results”.

When evaluating programmes, he said, civil servants must ask: “What value do they add? What incentives do they provide for better performance and better service to others?

“The Treasury in the UK has been, historically, very good at questioning the cost of projects, but not their broader social value,” he said.

Last year the Treasury announced that departments would be required to adopt the Public Value Framework, designed to measure the public value of projects and programmes, in their spending plans.

Gove said he was not concerned with “penny-pinching” but “that the vulnerable benefit”. 

“What are the metrics against which improvement will be judged? How are appropriate tools such as randomised controlled trials deployed to assess the difference being made? How do we guard against gaming and confirmation bias?

“All across government at the moment, that widespread rigour is missing.”

Gove said government must also publish more open data to enable “proper challenge from qualified outsiders”.

“If government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures,” he said.

'Whitehall can become a looking-glass world'

Amid these reforms, Gove said the civil service must continue to become less London-centric – a priority underlined by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, last year – to “literally reduce the distance between government and people by relocating government decision-making centres” around the UK.

And he said government should be “more ambitious” when it comes to overlooked locations.

“There have been relocations of government in the past but they have generally been to cities such as Bristol and Sheffield, with a particular socio-economic profile and a particularly large proportion of existing university graduates.

“We need to be more ambitious for Newcastle, for Teesside and Teesdale, for North Wales, for the North-East of Scotland, for East Lancashire for West Bromwich,” he said.

He added: “It is not just that all major government departments are based in London, with the impact that concentration of senior jobs has on our economy. It is also the case that Westminster and Whitehall can become a looking-glass world.

“Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan.”

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