Government projects fail when key activities – from contract management to the design of digital services – are not performed properly. Think Universal Credit, the flawed InterCity West Coast franchise competition or the offender tagging fiasco. In each of these cases, departments either lacked the specialist skills they needed or failed to make effective use of those they had.
These problems have long been recognised – indeed the Fulton Report, which highlighted them, will be 50 years old next year. It is only since 2013 that the leadership of the civil service has really stepped up efforts to professionalise key government activities such as policymaking, financial management, commercial procurement and contract management.
The civil service leadership has put in place a new structure for these specialisms, including the appointment of central, cross-government heads for each one (for example, Gareth Rhys Williams as chief commercial officer, Alex Aiken as executive director for government communications and Rupert McNeil as chief people officer). Each head is responsible for convening a leadership group with departmental representatives (for example, the Financial Leadership Group and the Policy Profession Board).
This is designed to help departments work more effectively. It cuts through age-old debates about centralisation in Whitehall, which treated cross-departmental working as a shift of power to be resisted. Permanent secretaries remain responsible for the performance of programmes and services. Meanwhile, the leadership group of each specialism is collectively responsible for making sure that departments have access to, and properly utilise, the skills that they need to deliver these programmes and services.
Our Professionalising Whitehall report provides a stocktake of these reforms. It finds significant progress in areas such as talent management – attracting, developing and deploying high-calibre people. The leaders of some specialisms are better placed than others to accelerate and embed reforms. For example, the cross-departmental leadership groups in communications, commercial and legal are stronger coalitions than some others. And there are some problems that have held back particular reforms, particularly leadership turnover in digital, finance and project delivery – each of which have had three different heads since 2014.
Our report also highlights the obstacles facing all specialisms. Senior decision makers in departments need to understand, demand and make better use of the professional support and services offered by specialists. There needs to be better co-ordination between the improvement agendas under way in each cross-departmental specialism. And there needs to be secure funding for the central teams of civil servants that help with day-to-day improvement programmes.
We argue there are four priorities to accelerate these reforms: better integration of specialists into departmental decision-making; enabling people from all specialisms to reach top leadership positions in the civil service; bringing together separate reform plans of the specialisms; and introducing more stable funding.
On the first point, key specialisms like finance and HR need greater representation on departmental executive teams and on the Civil Service Board. The new Civil Service Leadership Academy needs to provide training and mentoring to senior departmental leaders so they know when to engage specialists. And the specialisms themselves must be even more proactive in demonstrating the value of their input to departmental executive teams.
In terms of helping people up the leadership ladder, the civil service needs to ensure that specialists have greater access to training and mentoring on how to operate within a political environment and influence policy.
For the third area, the chief executive of the civil service should bring together the central heads of each specialism to share information and co-ordinate reform efforts. The current arrangements leave out important specialisms whose leaders are not located in the Cabinet Office – particularly policy and legal.
On the final point, the Civil Service Board, strengthened through greater representation from core specialisms, should oversee both core budgets and payment models for specialisms to ensure that the system helps departments work more effectively.
If the UK government is to succeed in negotiating the complex challenges that it now faces, it is vital that the leadership of the civil service shows continued commitment to the reforms being pursued by cross-departmental specialisms. There is a lot at stake.