Chisholm takes on churn and ‘costly, inefficient processes’ in the civil service

Coronavirus crisis has added "renewed weight" to the imperative for reform, COO says
Photo: Alex Chisholm

Alex Chisholm has promised to give officials “better defined paths to promotion and recognition” to tackle civil service churn.

Opening the annual Civil Service Live conference – taking place online this year – the civil service chief operating officer said upcoming reforms would ensure officials “will no longer feel they must switch roles to secure a promotion and higher pay”.

His comments come a couple of weeks after Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove pledged to address the “whirligig of civil service transfers and promotions” – which sees civil servants move between jobs frequently because they find themselves unable to secure a promotion in their existing role or department.

The problem means projects are led by a changing cycle of officials and that departments fail to retain institutional memory, while civil servants are unable to develop deep expertise and experience in one policy area.

Chisholm, who moved into the role with a brief to “lead the ongoing transformation of the civil service”, said overhauling promotions would be a key plank of a reform programme that would focus on “people and place”.

Making the civil service more inclusive and diverse will also feature heavily in the reforms, which the COO said “must make colleagues feel their efforts are valued, their successes rewarded, their ambitions fulfilled”.

Chisholm, who is diversity and inclusion champion for the civil service, said he wanted to ensure “every government policy and action reflects the full range and diversity of thought, from people of every social, educational, and ethnic background”.

While there was “much good work happening” to make the civil service more diverse, he said there was still “evidence of continuing prejudice, unacknowledged biases, and unequal opportunities”.

Extra training, better use of innovative technology and tackling silos will all feature in the reforms, Chisholm said – again echoing Gove’s comments last month.

He said civil servants had shown “extraordinary ingenuity and effort” during coronavirus, but that the crisis had added “renewed weight to our need to tackle the other, frustrating, side of the civil service – where we get bogged down in costly, inefficient processes, and teams on the ground see problems only too clearly, but their proposed solutions go nowhere”.

‘We cannot have two main efforts’

Chisholm said the civil service would face an enormous challenge in the coming months, as it focuses on the dual tasks of handling the Covid-19 crisis and preparing the country for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

“I remember the moment – twenty long months ago – when Mark [Sedwill] as cabinet secretary addressed all of us permanent secretaries at the height of the Brexit frenzy, and told us solemnly that we all needed to make no-deal planning our main effort,” he said.

“And I remember how in March this year, as the full horror of the coronavirus pandemic hit us, Mark again had to bring us together, and tell us that responding to this unprecedented threat must now be, for every department, the main effort.

“It is sobering to reflect that, even with all the progress we have made, we are still contending with the challenge of EU exit, and with the response to Covid-19; and we cannot have two main efforts.”

These demands mean that "much is needed from the civil service to deliver these mighty objectives", he said, as well as delivering on the more than 400 commitments in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto.

Whitehall reforms would help it to tackle these huge tasks, he said, but added that civil servants had performed “brilliant feats” during the coronavirus crisis to date, including setting up the Nightingale hospitals within weeks, establishing services like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and dealing with a surge in Universal Credit claims.

At times, officials had been operating “‘at the edge of deliverability’”, he said, quoting another perm sec. 

“And you have done all of this while living through the same pandemic as everybody else – threatened and in some cases infected by the virus, coping with lockdown, caring for loved ones,” he said.

He added: “This must give us all great hope – confidence even – that we can rise to the challenge that lies before us.”

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