Whitehall needs to do more to improve knowledge management rather than relying on civil servants not to leave in order to retain institutional knowledge and information, Sir Chris Wormald has said.
Department of Health and Social Care perm sec Wormald, who is also head of the civil service policy profession, said anecdotal evidence indicated the quality of advice provided to ministers was too variable and that knowledge-management needed to improve.
Speaking at an Institute for Government session on the future of policymaking, Wormald expressed concerns about policy professionals leaving the civil service mid-career, but said he did not believe that churn within the service was necessarily the main problem.
Asked by IfG senior fellow Dr Catherine Haddon about the impact of staff churn on policy evaluation and institutional memory, Wormold said that historically government had "over-relied on individuals being in a place for a long time [and] we have under-invested in knowledge management and knowledge transfer, and we’ve assumed we’ll be able to find whoever did it last time.”
“You do want people to stay in post for a long time and become actual experts. But that can’t be, shouldn’t be, an excuse not to do the knowledge management bit.”
Wormald said the switch from paper-based to digital-based record-keeping had initially been a problem for the civil service.
“Technology opens up much more sophisticated ways of doing knowledge management, but only if you use it well,” he said.
“If I’m honest, our knowledge management for a long time when we went digital was worse than when we had paper files because you really used to think about what you put on a file. People now do again, but there was a period when the public record was much worse because there is a load of e-mails as opposed to an auditable record of what happened.”
Wormald said the policy profession also had more work to do motivate, train and retain its specialists between Grade 7 and the Senior Civil Service.
He said the profession was good at Fast Stream level and good at SCS, but what happened to people mid-career was a question that needed to be answered.
“That’s when we lose most people – between the Fast Stream and becoming a senior civil servant,” he said.
Wormald also observed that the profession also needed to develop ways to better evaluate the quality of advice that ministers received. He said that inconsistency of advice was the biggest complaint made by past ministers – whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat.
“What a lot of our feedback is from ministers is that a lot of it is brilliant, it’s fantastic, it’s as good as you get from Goldmans [Goldman Sachs investment bank], or anyone. But it’s not all like that. And the gap between the really good and the not is quite high,” he said.
“I’ve had some ministers say to me that there is no middle ground, that they’ve never read a moderate piece of policy advice. It’s either been ‘yes, this is what I want’ or ‘I don’t want to read it, I want somebody else’. Very little in the middle, actually. This consistency question is a really big one for us.”
Wormald also applauded yesterday’s 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index, which ranked the UK civil service as officially the best in the world.
But he noted that in terms of core services, the UK ranked third in policymaking behind Finland and Denmark. “We’ll have to find out a bit more about what they’re doing,” he said.
Wormald also observed that the Sainsubury’s supermarket chain employed a policymaking “mindset” that he believed would benefit Whitehall.
Wormald said the retail giant had a rule that no system could be introduced that did not have a built-in evaluation mechanism.
“The operation of the system itself will create the data by which you evaluate,” he said. “Where in government does that?
“We’re very different from a supermarket, of course. But part of that mindset is that in the first place it will create its own evaluation of itself and generate the data that researchers can look at.
“That’s not normally our mindset [in government]. Our mindset is normally ‘here’s how to implement a policy… right, now how are we going to evaluate it?’”
He concluded: “We need to be much cleverer about creating the right data streams out of the operations of systems so that we can tell in real time whether those systems are working.”