Gove sets out plan ‘to rebalance government away from Whitehall’

Cabinet Office minister says 50% of senior roles will be based outside capital by 2030 and pledges pay and performance-management changes
Michael Gove delivers his reform speech this morning

By Jim Dunton

15 Jun 2021

Michael Gove has revealed further details of the government’s plans for Whitehall reform, announcing that 50% of senior civil servants will be based outside the capital by 2030,  as well as additional relocations and an array of other measures to open up recruitment into departments.

Almost 12 months on from his Ditchley Lecture pledge to “drive change”,  the Cabinet Office minister said the coronavirus pandemic has “revealed weaknesses in our government and society” that have made ministers “determined to deepen and accelerate our programme of reform”.

Measures outlined in a new Declaration on Government Reform, signed off by ministers and permanent secretaries today,  include steps to make the civil service more open to external talent. It will see all senior civil service roles advertised externally, alongside new flexible entry routes into the civil service.

A new system of pay, reward and performance management, including the introduction of capability-based pay for the senior civil service will be brought in. The prime minister and the cabinet secretary will oversee permanent secretaries' performance to make sure that they are delivering within their departments, Gove said.

He added that government will invest in new training for both civil servants and ministers, strengthening traditional skills and building expertise in digital, data, science, and project and commercial delivery. He reiterated plans to establish a new training campus, and pledge to reform the Fast Stream graduate programme and introduce new apprenticeships.

Speaking at an event hosted by former minister Lord Nick Herbert's Commission for Smart Government, Gove outlined the steps the government is taking towards its existing pledge to relocate 22,000 civil servants out of the capital by 2030. 

Gove listed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government's new base in Wolverhampton, the Treasury's Darlington campus,  the Home Office's new base in Stoke-on-Trent and the Cabinet Office's second headquarters in Glasgow. 

But he added: “Other departments will be moving as well”. 

The Declaration on Government Reform said the government will confirm five major departmental relocations this year, suggesting that at least one more major move is set to be announced.

The reforms also include measures to improve project delivery and a new Evaluation Task Force, based in the Cabinet Office, that is designed to “ensure proper scrutiny of real world results”.

The declaration was approved at what the Cabinet Office described as a first-of-its-kind joint meeting of the cabinet and departmental permanent secretaries. The document says extraordinary cabinet meetings bringing together perm secs and ministers should in future be held at least once a year to review progress.

Gove said that unlike previous reforms, the latest package has buy-in from officials and is the “fruit of discussion” with ministers.

“On some past occasions, it has been regrettable that reform overall was seen as something driven by politicians, against the mulish opposition of bureaucrats,” he said.

“It is a missed opportunity when reform is felt as something done by ministers to civil servants, rather than with them. And greater open-ness in the deployment of outside talent to drive progress should never be understood as somehow a replacement for or usurpation of the vital role civil servants play.”

'Churn will go'

Gove said he believed elements of the reforms progressed today would mean “churn will go”.

In a nod to often-expressed concerns about the disruptiveness of inter-departmental moves, the declartion said: “We will incentivise those with deep subject expertise who stay in areas where they add value and continue to develop.”

But the document stated a willingness to“intervene to help improve performance in areas of weakness”and continued: “We will manage out those whose performance consistently falls below the level the public have a right to expect.”

On reforming performance management for the senior civil service, the declaration says officials will be rewarded for “being exceptional in what they deliver for the public”. It adds that there will be a “clear link” from overall priorities to individual objectives.

“We will define the outcomes for which ministers and senior civil servants are responsible, with measurable targets,” it said. “We will assess permanent secretaries more transparently and systematically against departmental performance.  We will link rewards and bonuses to meeting those targets and demonstrating wider performance.”

Gove acknowledged that the Greensill lobbying scandal has raised questions about Whitehall's use of private-sector expertise. But he insisted that there must be no new “Berlin Wall” put up to separate civil servants and people from outside government who have skills to offer.

The declaration says: “It should be natural for people with careers and skills built in business to serve in government for a period, and for those in public service to spend time in organisations which are not dependent on public money – so long as there is clarity on roles and responsibilities, transparent and consistent processes, effective management of any potential or perceived conflicts of interest, and induction which firmly instils the civil service code and its values.”

It is emphatic that new ways of bringing talent into the civil service must be found, and suggests they must work for people who want long-term careers as well as those who want a “shorter tour of duty”.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union, said the declaration is a “welcome first step” to addressing some issues the union had been pressing for reform on, such as capability-based pay and additional training.

“The government needs to demonstrate it is serious,” he said. “It is also welcome that Michael Gove is making a virtue of working with the civil service to do this properly.

“This means working in tandem with civil service unions so we can achieve the best possible  outcomes for citizens and the staff who are passionate about what they do, the crucial contribution they make, and the services they deliver to make this country a safer and better place to live.”

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “The declaration of government reform - like so many of these documents - brings together work that is already under way, some firm commitments to reform and some vague declarations of intent, where the devil may very well be in the detail.

“What is to be welcomed is the tone of collaboration and recognition of the incredible strengths of our civil service, as well as the bedrocks of impartiality and integrity which these strengths are built on.

“Much is made of the need to bring in external talent, yet there is little detail on how they will bridge the chasm between pay levels in the civil service and the rest of the public sector, never mind the private sector. With equivalent jobs paying multiples of what a senior civil servant earns, pay reform - which they have so far manifestly failed to introduce - will be critical to the success of attracting and keeping talent."

However, Penman said that "vague assertions over ministerial involvement in the appointments of permanent secretaries and directors general will raise alarm bells".

He added: "Ministerial involvement in selection not only threatens the impartiality of the civil service, but will inevitably lead to greater turnover as successive ministers seek to build their own team around them, the very opposite of what they say they are trying to achieve.

“Overall, civil servants will need to be convinced that yet another strategic plan is more than just that, and will actually result in real world changes that help them to deliver the first-class public services to which they’re committed.”

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