The government’s plans for civil service reform are still quite murky. There has been a lot of speculation, several briefings to the media and a Dominic Cummings blogpost. But no formal plans, no statements from the PM himself and no minister has yet been allocated the task.
Focus has been on changes to the kinds of people that come into the civil service – both recruitment of officials and bringing in outsiders more generally. But also changes to how civil servants are trained, promoted and possibly even paid, to ensure that there is less turnover of officials, greater focus on policy expertise and institutional memory and more of the skills that some, including Cummings, believe are in too short supply.
The challenge for the government is making changes that stick. Since the Fulton report of 1968, increasing specialist skills and reducing turnover have been perennial themes of civil service reform. In January 2019 the Institute for Government highlighted the problems of turnover and recommended changes to pay, progression and performance management to tackle it.
If the government is serious about making changes, it needs to learn the lessons from past reforms. It needs clarity about its purpose. The 2013 experiment with extended ministerial offices – to bring more external expertise closer to ministers – failed because of lack of take up and burdensome Cabinet Office guidance. It should also be personally driven by someone senior enough to get traction. Reformers operating out of the centre of government can struggle without a charismatic lead, as was seen in the experience of the early 2000s Centre for Management and Policy Studies. Its leader had little sway with fellow permanent secretaries, let alone ministers. Most importantly though, if the PM truly wants an ambitious change to happen, he needs to signal that himself and make sure he resources the effort suitably. Whitehall will take reforms seriously if they see that the PM does also.