Cabinet Office reforms 'sensible but missed trick', think tank says

Institute for Government warns of lost opportunities and concludes Simon Case's "curse" concerns have come true
Jeremy Quin

By Tevye Markson

28 Jul 2023

Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin “missed a trick” in his reform announcements last week by failing to address one of the “core problems” that prevents specialists joining government, the Institute of Government has said.

The think tank’s analysis of Quin’s proposals – which included ridding job adverts of civil service jargon and speeding up recruitment and vetting processes and – found a “sensible” and “much-needed reinvigoration of the reforms agenda”.

The minister’s plan to second private sector digital “gurus” into government was more cautiously described by report authors Jordan Urban and Alex Thomas as an effective way to get the best external talent into government for a “tour of duty…if it works”. They warned that “such schemes are notorious for failing to gain traction” and said the scheme will require close attention from ministers and senior officials to “get off the ground”.

The IfG report also praised Quin’s focus on making the civil service more open to external recruits and outside ideas, saying that "at present the civil service is shutting itself off from too many capable people outside government”.

Previous research by the think tank found the civil service would "substantially benefit from better drawing on the talent of people in the wider economy, both by hiring people with specialist knowledge that it is hard to acquire in government, and increasing the cognitive diversity of officials”.

But Urban and Thomas warned that the minister had omitted a key reform in this area.

“Where Quin missed a trick was in failing to address one of the core problems that prevents specialists, including those with digital and data skills, coming into government – that there are too few roles that suit their skill set,” the report said.

“It is hard to make the best use of talented people if they do not have the right jobs to go to. While many private sector companies – and some public sector organisations, like the Bank of England – have a formal career track that allows people with technical expertise to grow more senior without having to take on management responsibility, the civil service does not.

“Our report Opening Up identified this as the single biggest barrier to bringing technical experts into the civil service. If recruiting more specialists is one of the government’s aims, this ought to have been one of its solutions.”

Quin also missed an opportunity to more substantively address high churn, the report added.

Urban and Thomas also rued missed opportunities of the last few years.

Quin’s reforms were the first major reform refresh since the Declaration on Government Reform in 2021, which the report says “did not deliver as much change as was hoped”.

Concerns raised by cabinet secretary Simon Case’s in a lecture in October 2021 that government reform after Covid would fall victim to the “curse of the missed opportunity” have “come to pass,” the report’s authors Jordan Urban and Alex Thomas said.

The report said government now needs to do more to show it can form a coherent reform strategy and mobilise ministers and officials behind it "to embed change in the civil service".

“Reform only works when ministerial and official energy across government are pushing in the same direction,” the authors added.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said a range of steps were being taken to ensure people with specialist skills are attracted to work at all levels of the civil service.

“As minister Quin set out, this is only the start of our work in this area,” they said.

“We are focused on driving up the productivity and efficiency of the civil service which will support us in delivering the government's agenda.”

The spokesperson added that work on ways that pay and reward could potentially be reformed in relation to capability is ongoing.

This story was updated at 16:30 on 28 July 2023 to include a Cabinet Office response

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