From the editor: Civil service reform requires hard work and moral conviction

CSW's editors consider the arc of change in the civil service and reflect on our summer issue
The Oval Office rug displaying a Martin Luther King quote favoured by Obama. Photo: Pete Souza/White House/Sipa Press

When writing about change in government, we are sometimes reminded of the Martin Luther King quote which former US president Barack Obama had woven into a rug for the Oval Office: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Change might be slow coming in the civil service, but over time there is progress. The steady growth of gender diversity in the senior civil service is one instance of this, or the momentum building behind Places for Growth, which is seeing a meaningful shift in where and how civil servants work. 

The phrase also came to mind when we met the Cabinet Office’s Mark Thompson, whose job title (head of data, platforms and interoperability) obscures the fact that his team is supporting fundamental and long-awaited change which will make it easier for civil servants to work together on tricky cross-cutting challenges. 

Thompson’s team is standing on the shoulders of those who have developed functions across government – bringing together skills and capability from tech, data, HR and property to help the civil service run better. And the work they do feeds into many other arcs of progress: helping to improve socio-economic diversity, for example, or being more strategic about using skills across government and building new skills for the future. 

Yet while some conversations remind us that the civil service is changing for the better, this only serves to highlight the areas where the arc of change seems to be bending not towards better government, but towards dysfunction. The Institute for Government has written some excellent reports on how government handled Brexit and responded to Covid. In both instances, the IfG found examples of secrecy between departments, reflecting the breakdown of the processes of cabinet government which have allowed ministerial interests to be balanced and conflicts resolved in the past.

The resignation of Dominic Raab was first and foremost a reflection on his own behaviour. But it also highlighted the problems of a system where ministers on the one hand do not have enough power – feeling they cannot effect meaningful change because the levers of government are slow or unconnected – and on the other too much, with limited protection for the civil servants who work with them. 

The idea of a new statutory basis for the civil service, as set out by the IfG, is attractive because it would allow our elected representatives to debate and perhaps correct some of these longstanding tensions which civil servants alone cannot address.

In America, some liberal activists criticised Obama for placing so much emphasis on Dr King’s arc of the moral universe quote – they felt it suggests there is no need for hard, reforming, radical work to bring about change if it will simply happen with the passage of time. So it is in the civil service: what progress we see – whether in diversity, skills or structures – is thanks to the hard work of officials like Mark Thompson, and politicians who understand what makes good government. 

Addressing the underlying problems around power and accountability will also require hard work and – dare we say it – moral conviction. Reforming the civil service isn’t easily translated into populist soundbites, and making a case for change requires an honest assessment of both official and political problems. But it is essential if we are to have a government which works for the people it serves. 

Read the summer 2023 issue of Civil Service World

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell - From the editor: Whatever else 2024 will be, it will be a year of change


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