“It should be normal for officials to spend time outside of Whitehall” – former DCLG minister Bob Neill rates the civil service

The Official View: Former communities minister Bob Neill on the strengths and weaknesses of the civil service

By Civil Service World

02 Sep 2015

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?
Yes, because my previous dealings with the Department for Communities and Local Government had been from the perspective of a local government leader, almost as a customer and a lobbyist, and now I was, sometimes literally, looking at it from the other side of the table. I came to be impressed by the quality and commitment of our officials, generally, but I'm still not sure that the processes of government make best use of their talents.

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What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?
Even very able and experienced officials often had little experience of actually delivering services on the ground. It would be better if more had spent part of their career as local government officers or with the other service delivery agencies. And, like many colleagues, I was surprised at the lack of appreciation of how important parliament is. I also found it much more silo-like than local government is.  
If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?
I would like it to be a normal part of career development to spend time, not just in other parts of the public sector, but also in the private and third sectors. Other countries do this much better. I'd also like to see commercial awareness given much greater weight and a greater willingness to accept outside involvement of outside expertise, both in policy development and service delivery.
Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service? 
When I told an official that the formula to calculate councils’ Formula Grant – ie, how much central government funding each local authority receives in the spending review every year – did not adequately reward those with a history of efficiency, I got the response: "Well, minister, I think the view has always been that efficiency is its own reward." I don't think a local government officer would have said that!

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