Opinion: The civil service is in crisis. This must not go to waste

It is time for government to acknowledge why the desired outcomes for public services are not being delivered. But this will require challenging Whitehall’s survivors


By Andrew Greenway

17 Oct 2017

You often hear of managers being described as survivors. This is especially true of those working in government or the NHS. Being a Survivor suggests toughness, resilience, an ability to get through dark and difficult times. 

These are all valuable qualities, but survivor is rarely intended as a compliment. It does not equate to merit, vision or charm. It simply speaks to a person’s ability to keep on going, stay the course, whatever the weather. That it is sometimes better to be lucky than to be good. 

The survivalism of public sector managers is perplexing, maddening even, to many people both inside and outside of government. What appear to be career-ending crises pass by without any apparent ill-effects. Huge waves break and come back down the beach, but the barnacles cling on.


As institutions and organisations grow, they invariably become more complex. More things can go wrong. More money, wellbeing and jobs are on the line. Doing anything becomes riskier. Unsurprisingly, the pressure to survive, to exist, grows. Progress becomes the monster behind the cupboard door, kept shut. The pace of delivery creaks to a halt. 

This is just as true of big companies as it is of the civil service, local government and the NHS, but the fiendishly tricky nature of central government perhaps explains why the greatest preponderance of survivors appears on the public side of the balance sheet. Also, big, slow, old companies full of survivors don’t grind on and on. They fold. The only inevitable outcome of a survival strategy is, ironically, death. 

Survival is not civilisation. Continued existence does not move us forward. What this approach is excellent for, however, is managing crisis. 

Back in the summer, Tony Blair told Radio 4 that he had learnt that the civil service is “… great at managing things, but not great at changing things. If you had a crisis, there was nothing better than that British system. It kicked in, it operated to a high degree of quality and on numerous occasions I had cause to be thankful for it… reinventing government has fallen off the political agenda in recent times and it really shouldn’t.” 

This stiff upper lip sort of attitude manifests itself in all aspects of British self-perception, history and culture. We enjoy crises. They bring us together, draw out the best in us. A touch of pluck, a whiff of Agincourt. Opportunities, however well framed, tend to inspire ‘come off it’ responses, and a deluge of colourful and witty moaning. If the leading Brexiteers had any sense, they would give up the narrative that leaving the EU promises Albion a new dawn. As a rule, the British don’t want a new dawn. They want peace and quiet. 

On 20 October, the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is bringing together over a hundred of our permanent secretaries and directors general for an event called Reimagining Public Service. The very fact this is happening is good news. The big question though, for me at least, is why hold this now? What do those attending believe is the reason for reinventing public service? Is it so the lights stay on? To respond to current events, which are deemed exceptional (as all current events tend to be)? Or to address a crisis? 

Call me a miserabilist if you like, but I would argue that public service –  and the civil service as a part of that –  is deep in the throes of a crisis that runs much deeper than the news cycle. More to the point, a timely and public acknowledgement of this would be a good thing, allowing things to move forward. 

The worst possible response from the civil service’s leadership would be to treat ‘reinvention’ as another opportunity for mutual back-slapping about how this is already well underway. This is not a time for complacency, for being lazy and hazy. Incremental tweaking is insufficient.

Politicians who believed their bureaucracies, full of skilled survivors, were at a crisis point have done their best to bring attention to the fact. 

To do so, they have taken one of two routes. They have created enough space for disruptive outsiders to thrive, and hope that in time they expand to consume the whole. This is the model adopted by different parties in recent decades; the Government Digital Service in the Coalition government, Heath’s Central Policy Review Staff, Blair’s Prime Ministerial Strategy Unit. These proved to be an unsustainable drain on the physical, intellectual and mental stamina of the outsiders. Their resources elapse before the deep reforms they hope for can be achieved. Changing an institution the size of government is neither a marathon, nor a sprint. It is a relay. The disruptive units brought in to government to change the weather make gains, but these are episodic and subject to tissue rejection from those happy with the status quo.

The alternative model is to sow a few seeds internally, wait, steadily adapt, and hope to run down the clock on the survivors. This is a sensible, pragmatic approach, in theory. The problem is that it requires too many people to take on an unrealistic dual personality; patient enough to assimilate over decades, yet zealous enough to keep the deep fires burning. 

My suggestion is that both of these methods fail to really change institutions when the organisation doesn’t really believe deep down that anything is wrong. The attitude tends to be ‘of course there is opportunity for improvement. There always is. But there is no crisis’. Without some acknowledgement that it is time to take a purposeful look at why the outcomes we want are not being delivered, you can survive, but you cannot progress.

Outcomes are written by survivors. History too. It is a band that sticks together. Bring a small group of senior leaders together in a safe, private space, and they will cheerfully regale each other with failures they played starring roles in. What I rather hope happens on 20 October is a collective admission that such episodes are not isolated events or regrettably inevitable. Deeper change is needed. 

A reinvention based upon continued survival is not enough for the civil service. Much like Brexit, here is a crisis. To move forward, we need to admit that, and embrace it. 

Read the most recent articles written by Andrew Greenway - Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world

Share this page