‘The civil service can never stand still’: cab sec rallies officials to reform

Officials must become "more disciplined about how we prioritise and evaluate what we do", Simon Case says
"Like the marathon runner who crosses the finishing line yet still gets up to train for the next race, we will go again." Photo: Peppe702/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The reform plan unveiled today will make the civil service more “skilled, innovative and ambitious” but will require great commitment and discipline to deliver on its goals, cabinet secretary Simon Case has said.

In an all-staff memo this afternoon, Case said the civil service must build on its work during the coronavirus pandemic to cement “long-term transformation”, through the Declaration on Government Reform unveiled by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.

“In the crucible of the pandemic, our staff, systems and structures have been in constant flux, forcing us to look again at all our ways of working,” Case wrote.

Comparing the civil service to a marathon runner who ends one race only to begin training for another, he added: “As many of you have found while wrestling with outdated processes and legacy systems, we will need an even more skilled, innovative and ambitious organisation to pull it off. Our plan is to create a modern civil service that works better for the people we serve, for the government we support and for us.”

In particular, he praised civil servants for finding ways to use data and technology more effectively, and for working across silos.

But he said “tricky questions” had been asked of the civil service during the pandemic.

“We need to come up with the answers as we gear up for our next mission from the prime minister: helping the country build back better from Covid-19; forging a new place for the country on the world stage; levelling up across the UK; and speeding up progress towards net zero.

“Individually, each would test the civil service. Collectively, they will require the very best of us.”

The declaration on reform was signed by both ministers and permanent secretaries, signifying that it is a “joint endeavour”.

Earlier today, Gove said that in the past, “reform overall was seen as something driven by politicians, against the mulish opposition of bureaucrats”.

In the all-staff memo this afternoon, Case wrote that politicians and civil servants are now “equally responsible... for driving the progress the country needs to recover and flourish” after Covid-19.

“[That means] having the best people leading and working in government, and equipping them with the skills, training and knowledge they deserve. Being more disciplined about how we prioritise and evaluate what we do. And always operating as one government team, with the clear goal of improving citizens’ lives,” he said.

“I am tired and I expect you are too”

Case’s message also included words of encouragement to civil servants feeling worn down after the gruelling workload brought about by the pandemic.

“At work and at home, the past 15 months have been more challenging than any other in most people’s living memory of the civil service We have not mobilised for war, it is true, but in fighting a vicious new virus through a series of lockdowns at the same time as handling Brexit, neither has it felt like peace,” Case, who is also the head of the civil service, wrote. 

“I confess that I am tired and I expect you are too, after giving your all to our communities and fellow citizens. But I hope you also share my pride in your phenomenal achievements. The pandemic response has proved what is possible when you have thousands of civil servants digging deep to deliver superhuman efforts for people the length and breadth of the country.”

As the country looks forward to its recovery from Covid-19, Case stressed that the civil service “can never stand still”.

“Its work is never done: ours is an open-ended and selfless commitment to serve the government and people. Like the marathon runner who crosses the finishing line yet still gets up to train for the next race, we will go again.”

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