Opinion: How to make the civil service brilliant by mirroring global government’s other stars

A new international league table shows where the civil service is world classed – and where Whitehall is lagging behind. Sharing of practice can help tackle shared problems


By Calum Miller

26 Jul 2017

The UK civil service is facing multiple challenges. Demography and technology are rapidly changing citizen expectations of government services and how they are delivered. Departments and agencies face constrained, and falling, budgets and to make a hard task even harder, Brexit throws up enormous uncertainty and change. As the National Audit Office noted in March “civil servants are responsible for an increasingly complex range of tasks and projects.”

If there was ever a time when we should look to learn from others, then, it is now. The pace of change and the challenge of working with shrinking budgets are not unique to the UK. Other nations have confronted them too: some with real success.


This month saw the launch of the International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index through a joint collaboration between the Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government, with the support of the UK civil service and funded by the Open Societies Foundations. The index provides an annual snapshot of how the civil services of different countries fare across a range of functions and attributes.

Overall, the index suggests that the UK civil service starts from a good position. The UK ranks 4th out of 31 countries or 6th if this is adjusted to reflect national wealth. There are a number of sub-categories where the UK is ranked 1st: policy making, social security administration, and openness. This is worth celebrating at a time when many working in the UK public sector feel under pressure.

The index makes it easier for the UK to pinpoint those civil services that excel in the areas where we struggle more. Good government is not a rivalrous product: better government in one country should lead to better outcomes everywhere. We can and should help each other.

The index points out, for example, that Ireland is the world-leader in HR management: an area where the UK has room to improve. Estonia, meanwhile, tops the league table for digital services while the UK sits in 23rd place. If Estonia’s digital prowess is more well known, it might be more surprising that Poland comes first for the degree to which the civil service represents the society it serves and particularly for the number of women at senior grades, an area where the UK also has work to do.

The UK will not improve in the exact same way as Poland, Estonia or Ireland. We are different countries with diverse institutions and capabilities. Ireland scores well for its success in drawing in external talent and for the relatively competitive salaries it pays civil servants. Perhaps the UK can learn from the first but – for now – may be more constrained to match the second. The UK has made big strides through the Government Digital Service but Estonia – and second placed Austria, for example – have lessons for us in how to make online services more user-centric. If the index stimulates deeper thinking about how each of these countries has succeeded and which of those strategies the UK could modify and adapt, it will have done its job.

We at the Blavatnik School of Government are pleased to be a partner in this new index. Our mission is to improve government. We seek to be a place where people can come together, explore the evidence, learn from one another, reflect, and identify actions to make their societies better. The index is a great input to these conversations.

But the key audience for the index are those who are committed to the improvement of government through their work as civil servants. That is why the publication of the index for the first time is also a call to arms. Please join us in making the index a valuable tool for positive change. Explore the data at www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/incise and tell us where you think we have got it wrong or right. And use the evidence you find to ask questions and press for improvement.

Sir Jeremy Heywood believes the index supports his ambition to create a “brilliant civil service”. As he noted when InCiSE was launched: “this publication represents a major breakthrough in the way that civil service performance can be tracked over time”. By using the information in the InCiSE Index, we can improve the civil service – for those who work in it, and for the ministers and citizens it serves.

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