Editorial: Take your eyes off the (volley)ball...

...and you’ll see the reform plan undergoing a mutation

By Matt.Ross

08 Aug 2012

For the media, the Olympics is a blessing sent to fill the silly season with dramatic stories; from reading the papers, you’d think the whole nation had paused to watch. But in the Cabinet Office, things are moving – and the significance of the Civil Service Reform Plan is becoming clear.

In particular, it’s increasingly obvious that the government is serious about making top civil servants more directly accountable to ministers. The plan included proposals to strengthen ministers’ role in appointing permanent secretaries. The mainstream press has now realised that ministers also want to get more involved in setting officials’ performance targets and judging their success; something reported by CSW six weeks ago, but which wasn’t explicit in the plan. Importantly, this wouldn’t only apply to perm secs, but to all those who work with ministers or run major programmes.

Finally, government is using its outsourced policymaking initiative as a Trojan horse to smuggle more extensive accountability reforms into Whitehall. The plan set out an intention to “look at other models” of civil service accountability, including the New Zealand system of setting officials contractual targets – but the research now announced (news, p3) hints at still more dramatic ideas, including a look at direct political appointment of officials. The £50,000 price tag and two-month timescale will permit little detailed primary research, so the government will have to commission an organisation with a track record of research in the field – and may hand-pick a body likely to produce some very radical proposals (if the think tank Reform gets the job, the alarm bells will be deafening). Officials already suspected that outsourced policymaking would be used to develop policies that run counter to civil service traditions, culture, beliefs and interests; this first piece of outsourced work will confirm those fears.

If civil servants thought the reform plan represented the coalition coming to terms with a modest set of changes, this week’s news will cause a rethink. The government must move carefully here, lest it weaken the civil service’s ability to protect ministers from their own tendency to push through ill thought-out, dogmatic policies that collapse or create new problems. But while the prospect of ministers having greater leverage over civil servants may be uncomfortable, the coalition will itself think twice before massively increasing a government’s ability to implement radical reforms in the face of institutional opposition: after all, ministers know they won’t be in government forever – and one day, today’s Opposition will be the people trying to get the Whitehall machine to do their bidding.

A daft idea, scuppered
You don’t always need civil servants to kill a silly policy

CSW had a leader brewing about House of Lords reform; the DPM’s retreat has spared you. Suffice to say that reforms are only a good idea if they create a more democratic, intelligent, expert, independent-minded and scrupulous Lords, while the coalition’s proposals offered precisely the opposite. And there’s more good news: this is one policy, at least, whose failure cannot be blamed on a sullenly recalcitrant civil service. ?

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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