Whilst public sector head counts have been falling, Heywood (pictured above) pointed out, outcomes in many areas have been improving: “That is a step change in productivity,” he said. “If anything, productivity in the private sector has been falling, not rising. But we have the most productive civil service we’ve ever had.”
“I can’t remember, in my 30 years as a civil servant, a more transformative time in the civil service,” he added. “I’d like to congratulate civil servants on how we’ve managed so far.”
However, the cabinet secretary also warned of the difficulty of stimulating economic growth and reducing public debt. “Five years on from the trough of the recession, we still haven’t made up all the ground”, he said, noting that the economy is now four per cent smaller than it was in 2008. “The size of the challenge that remains is evident for all to see.”
“Despite all the efforts that have been made, our debt to GDP ratio is still rising,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go to get that ratio falling.”
In order to create a civil service that’s “open, unified, and skilled”, said Heywood, civil servants must be “confident; not afraid of contestability; not afraid of challenge”. They must “embrace payment by results models”, he argued, whilst “on delivery, as well as on policy advice, we need to be embracing new ideas”.
Success will depend on “making a reality of the Capability Plan”, he added, “And I think we’re making good progress on this. At the start of this Parliament, only 20% of our major projects were on track. Now it’s more like two thirds. That shows what can be done.”
Asked by an audience member why ministers and special advisers are so often quoted criticising the civil service, Heywood replied that “our ministers do make speeches and statements in Parliament in support of us, and all the ministers I talk to are full of praise for the civil service. Of course they might wish it to be better at this or that, but it’s not a complacent, bland critique. But the papers will report what they think their readers will find interesting – and at the moment, they find it quite interesting to point out the weaknesses of the civil service, and occasionally some tensions between what ministers and civil servants might want.”
“I personally don’t think it reflects at all the quality of the civil service, or the relationship between ministers and civil servants, which I think is in good shape. But I’m afraid sometimes the more positive messages just aren’t carried; and that’s just life, unfortunately. We just have to dust ourselves down and get on and try to deliver for the country.’
Heywood’s speech is covered on the front page of today’s Telegraph, but the newspaper chose not to cover his praise for civil servants and their progress on reform. Instead, it presented his comments on the country’s economic and fiscal plight as a call for further austerity measures.