Slow government risks wasting another reform opportunity, think tank warns

Institute for Government calls for Declaration on Government reform refresh to prevent history from repeating itself

By Tevye Markson

22 Apr 2022

The government must implement its civil service reform plan more quickly or risk it becoming another wasted opportunity, a leading think tank has warned.

Progress on the Declaration on Government reform is “behind schedule” and more could have been done in the last 10 months to meet its goals, the Institute for Government has said in a report today.

Launched in June 2021 by then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the Declaration included 30 commitments to be completed by the end of 2021.

However, only eight of those “actions” were completed by April this year, according to the IfG – with CSW’s own research concluding that ten actions have been put in place.

The IfG has praised the level of ambition in the reform plan but said progress has been slow and has called for the government to refresh the declaration to stop it from becoming “the latest in a succession of reform efforts that identify the same big problems but do not resolve them”.

Jordan Urban, an IfG researcher who wrote the report, said: “The Declaration on Government Reform contains a good level of ambition, even if it is vague in places. But there is a gap between the government’s goals and the plans in place to get there.

“Progress on the 30 specific commitments in the declaration’s annex has been slower than hoped.

“Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, said last year that he is worried about the civil service missing its opportunity to reform in the aftermath of the pandemic. He is right. A new set of ambitious and targeted actions is needed to reinvigorate the reform effort.”

The declaration set out to fix some of the biggest issues with how government works, such as blurred accountability between civil servants and ministers, rapid turnover of staff leading to reduced expertise among officials and low levels of recruitment from outside government.

But the IfG said the government is at risk of repeating a cycle of the last 50 years where the same ideas are repeatedly identified and plans for reform declared – but ministers and officials lose interest and the most difficult changes are not implemented.

This has led to the civil service being less effective in supporting governments and hampered its legitimacy, the IfG said.

Which actions have been completed?

The IfG and CSW came to slightly different conclusions when analysing which actions have been completed, agreeing on six:

  • A new central digital and data office has been created
  • Establishing an evaluation task force and a No.10 delivery unit
  • Expanding the government major projects portfolio
  • Setting up the government major contracts portfolio
  • Holding an extraordinary cabinet meeting at least once a year
  • Publishing a diversity and inclusion strategy

The IfG said two additional actions had been completed – outcome delivery plans are in place in all departments and the senior civil service performance management framework has been updated.

CSW rated the ODP action as partially completed, because it included a commitment for each department to set up a Delivery Board with non-executive director involvement to monitor performance – and we were unable to identify a single department that had done so.

We also said there was more to do to hit the performance management framework target, as the full implementation of the framework has been delayed until 2023-24.

CSW’s analysis, which used slightly different criteria and rated actions according to a traffic-light system, concluded that four more actions had been completed: launching the Government Projects Academy and Project Delivery Framework; establishing a new curriculum and training campus; implementing clear standards for all functions; and putting in place a training programme for ministers.

For CSW’s full breakdown of which actions have been completed, check out our two RAG rating assessments on Performance and Partnership; and People.

Whether you accept the IfG’s analysis that eight actions have been completed or CSW’s view that nine have been put in place, that leaves more than two-thirds of the goals incomplete. While nine of these are in progress, according to CSW’s research, 11 have not got off the starting blocks.

Both CSW and the IfG have noted that many of the completed actions were work that was already planned or in progress when the declaration was published. An example of this is the Central Digital and Data Office already being established in February 2021, four months before the reform plans were announced.

The IfG said the government should now set out a new set of “more ambitious, tightly focused and mutually reinforcing” actions focusing on improving accountability, reducing staff turnover, increasing outside recruitment and creating a smarter centre of government.

A government spokesperson said: “The reform programme will deliver better services for the British public, help level up the country and make the civil service better reflect the country it serves.

“Good progress has already been made, including through moving 4,000 civil service roles out of London, establishing the Evaluation Taskforce to make government spending more efficient and better incentivising high performance. 

“We recognise there is more to do and the whole of government continues to work tirelessly to implement its ambitious reform agenda.”

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