The year ahead: ‘Civil service capability is key to the UK’s success and reform is an opportunity for Whitehall’

In our January issue, CSW asks experts to give their thoughts on the new government’s policy priorities. In this entry, Policy Exchange’s Iain Mansfield considers plan for civil service reform

Photo: PA

By Iain Mansfield

16 Jan 2020

In Policy Exchange’s recent report, Whitehall Remimagined, we set out a ten-point plan for reform of the civil service. The report, summarised by Civil Service World, includes recommendations to strengthen No.10, improve the support provided to ministers, strengthen the role of specialists and evidence in policy making, transform public appointments and upgrade the government’s capabilities in public procurement and digital.

Our report explicitly rejects politicisation or a significant increase in the number of special advisers. Reform should take place firmly within the framework of impartiality set down by Northcote and Trevelyan and endorsed by subsequent reforms such as the Fulton report – and, as Sir David Normington has said, change will occur most effectively if ministers and the civil service work together.


Indeed, many our recommendations are aimed at bolstering the expertise of the civil service, which most observers would agree has had to cope with a decade of sprain. Time spent in posts are well below the benchmarks advocated by Lord O’Donnell during the noughties – driven, as Dave Penman rightly observes, by the end of pay progression post and exacerbated by HR policies that hinder and fail to incentivise senior leaders from managing work force. Our report explicitly calls for the return of pay progression, as well as for the restoration of the gold standard of promotion boards and numeracy and literacy tests for the Fast Stream.

Similarly, when it comes to embracing the 21st century, it is civil service capability that we identify as key to success, highlighting the criticality of appointing the right Government Chief Digital Information Officer and calling for a new unit to be established that will drive the ethical use of big data and AI. Our call to tear up the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Official Journal of the European Union and make public procurement an instrument of regional economic regeneration do not threaten civil service neutrality, but do reflect a need to be responsive to the democratic mandate expressed at the last election.

A civil service that can deliver more effectively on the electoral mandate of ministers will be one that is more flexible and responsive, but that at the same time remains highly competent, deep in expertise and politically impartial. Our report provides a measured approach that both ministers and mandarins should endorse to together deliver meaningful, impactful reform.

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