“Lessons to be learned” is, alongside “in due course,” one of those ubiquitous Whitehall phrases that has become popular because it allows someone to express good intentions without setting out specific details.
However, when Jon Thompson, the new permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, uses the term,he does so with particular aims in mind: for the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), preparation work will be conducted earlier, a wider range of evidence will be gathered, and – more broadly – defence civil servants’ project management skills are to be improved.
Experience is often the best form of education, and Thompson can outline these lessons with confidence for he was, as finance director, closely involved with the most recent SDSR.
His laudable aims, however, could be compromised by the drastic staff cuts his department is facing: 38 per cent cut in civilian staff over 10 years, and more than 15 per cent have already gone.These cuts may be necessary to meet budgetary restraints but they introduce the risk that institutional memory, which could improve the next SDSR, will be lost.
Lessons can also be learned from successes, which is why DCMS’s latest round of redundancies,is worrying. The department has just delivered a hugely successful Olympic Games, and the project management expertise built up over five marathon years of preparation is sorely needed across Whitehall.
Departments could also struggle to retain their best-prepared civil servants because, as our special report notes, while the Civil Service Reform Plan commits to improving the civil service, it’s unclear how this can be achieved through a set of policies that include vast job cuts and a weakening of terms and conditions. Ministers must learn that their wisest minds will head elsewhere if prospects don’t improve.