Civil service must embrace change or risk losing public trust, Simon Case warns

Cabinet secretary also uses Newcastle speech to flag need for officials to “rocket boost” their data skills
Cabinet secretary Simon Case Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

By Jim Dunton

15 Oct 2021

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has warned that the civil service will be jeopardising its survival if it does not embrace change as the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic – and suggested the keenest advocates for reform are officials themselves.

Case used a speech at Newcastle University to reflect on lessons from the government’s response to Covid-19 and said the civil service needed to “rise up from the defensive crouch” it had adopted to reform “too often in the past”.

The cab sec acknowledged that the government was “only in the foothills” of the Declaration on Government Reform proposals set out by then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in June, and signed off by cabinet members and departmental perm secs.

But he said there was an urgent need for “rocket boosters” in departmental data skills, which he said would be crucial for the government’s levelling up agenda and the wider recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Case said that elements of the response to Covid-19 had shown the civil service at its best: “Skilled, innovative, ambitious. More confident, more spirited. Less risk averse – less hostage to process.”

However he said it was also necessary to acknowledge weaknesses such as cumbersome processes and siloed working, which he said had slowed officials down and hindered best practice, as well as confusion about who was responsible for what.

Case’s list also included failing to work consistently well across national and local government; missing the value of expertise on the ground; weaknesses in gathering, handling and presenting data; and a “longstanding lack” of specialist scientific and technical knowledge.

Case said leading Whitehall historian Lord Peter Hennessy – who was his PhD supervisor at Queen Mary University of London – had identified the years after the Second World War as a great “missed opportunity” for government to hold on to lessons from its response to the conflict.

The cab sec said it was vital for the current government not to make the same mistake in the wake of the pandemic.

He said it was “absolutely possible” to be a passionate defender of the role of the civil service and at the same time be “determined” to address its weaknesses.

“My colleagues want to be respected personally and see their contribution valued, so many of the greatest advocates for reform are actually civil servants,” he said.

“Some of the loudest voices for change are coming from within. We know what frustrates us; what holds us back.  We know what makes it harder for us to do our jobs.”

He added: “I’ve seen in the past 18 months how ready my colleagues are to rip up the old ways of doing things and try something fresh.

“It has been exhilarating and exhausting. But our eyes must remain open to what we can achieve.”

Civil service ‘cannot take its position for granted’

Case told Wendesday’s event that the pandemic had brought a need for adaptation and change, and added that the impetus for change had “not receded” with the end of the most recent lockdown.

“We must think about how best to shape the civil service for future generations. And, if we want to preserve this organisation that many cherish, we need to embrace change, not shrink from it,” he said.

Case said the civil service needed to “rise up from the defensive crouch that we have assumed around reform too often in the past, and instead stand tall”.

He compared the civil service’s relationship with the public to that of an FTSE100 company and its need to review and renew its business model to boost performance at the risk of incurring the “wrath of its shareholders and customers”.

“While our position is one of great privilege, it is not granted in perpetuity,” Case said.

“Rather, ours is a role that we need to earn anew with every generation of civil servants, or risk our most important customers – the people of this country and their elected representatives – looking again at the services we offer and wondering if they are getting value for money, and whether we are too often insulated from the price of failure.”

The cab sec said the civil service needed to be honest about what had not gone well and “clear-eyed” about what had to change if it was to retain the trust of ministers and the public.

“We cannot foresee exactly what will happen in the future - but we can make ourselves more resilient to the impact of future events,” he said.

“And we can do this by cultivating a truly modern civil service – with the people, the performance and the partnerships – that will allow us to adapt, evolve and embrace change as an ally.”

Levelling up demands data skills ‘rocket boosters’

Case acknowledged that the civil service’s extensive investment in training had still left it with “patchy” knowledge levels in specialist areas. He said the pandemic had exposed weaknesses in data skills among some officials.

He said that securing the right level of data skills would be crucial for the success of the government’s cross-cutting levelling up agenda.

“Our levelling up programme, for example, will be all the more robust, if data is collected and, crucially, used, with place at the heart of the approach,” Case said.

“We need to have better analytical skills. How we interpret, use, display and communicate data are essential parts of the mission.

“We need to put rocket-boosters under our plans to equip our own people with these skills, or plug the gap by bringing them in from outside.”

Case’s speech also referred to ministers’ keenness for civil servants to “pick up valuable experience through private sector secondments” and efforts to “bring in external expertise” to departments.

“We want it to be natural for people who have built a career in business, industry, academia or the third sector to serve, even for a relatively brief time – just as it will be as valuable for those presently in public service to experience life in another organisation,” he said

“That is why a new secondments unit has been established in the Cabinet Office to increase the two-way traffic at a senior level; for the long-term national good.”

However, in a clear nod to the Greensill lobbying scandal, Case said the two-way traffic would be “all done, of course, within a clear and rigorous propriety framework”.

Case also acknowledged in his 4,700-word speech that he had not touched on other things that were “equally important”. He gave “how we reward people and support their careers” as one example.

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