"Not a ‘carry on as we are’ agenda": new civil service chief’s reform priorities revealed

Coronavirus crisis has shown officials can work free of "constraints of location and organisational boundaries", Alex Chisholm tells CSW

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The new chief operating officer of the civil service has set out details of plans to reform government after acknowledging that the civil service is not viewed by the public as good at delivering major projects on time and to budget.

In his first interview in his new role, Alex Chisholm, who took up the post in March to lead the next period of civil service reform, said that his priorities would include diversifying the civil service, fostering gender and racial diversity as well as cognitive, social and professional diversity.

He also told CSW he wanted to see the civil service “keep a hold of” some of the ways of working it has developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic as part of the change.


Civil service reform has become a major area of wider political interest following the appointment of Dominic Cummings, a long-standing critic of the way Whitehall works, as a top adviser to prime mister Boris Johnson last year. Cummings has previously said that the permanent civil service is an idea for the history books, and while in No.10 wrote a blog calling for “weirdos and misfits” to work in the centre of government to help achieve ‘true cognitive diversity’.

He wrote: “What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.”

In comments welcoming Chisholm’s move from permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove highlighting that in the medium term “much of Alex’s work will necessarily be coronavirus response related”, but he indicated that Whitehall reform would be among the other priorities.

“But Alex will be responsible for supporting ministers to develop and then drive forward a reform programme for the civil service, building on the government’s existing efficiency programme,” Gove said.

Speaking to CSW, Chisholm said that he took his responsibly to lead reforms very seriously. “It is a change agenda, not a ‘carry on as we are’ agenda,” he said.

He said he wanted to boost delivery skills in a civil service that was “rightly seen as being outstanding for its integrity and its level of public service commitment” but was “pretty poor” at delivering programmes on time and to budget.

“That is seen and noted by our fellow citizens who depend on the services we provide: we need to accept that and change it,” he said.

The functions-based operating structure for the civil service put in place by Chisholm’s predecessor John Manzoni will support this objective.

While some functions, such as commercial and property, are mature, others need further development to bring them to the “same level of excellence and maturity”, he said.

Chisholm said he also wanted to further professionalise the more traditional parts of the civil service, such as policy and operational delivery. This will entail “further strengthening of skills and methods, clarity about people’s roles, and clarity about the support that comes from the centre”, he said.

He has begun working with other civil service leaders – Jonathan Slater, Department for Education perm sec and head of the policy profession, Department for Work and Pensions perm sec Peter Schofield and HMRC chief exec Jim Harra – on plans to bring the same “investment in skills, capabilities and support systems” to operational and policy staff as the centralised functions.

Covid response points the way

The way government services have adapted to the coronavirus pandemic has proved how the civil service can adapt, he told CSW editor Suzannah Brecknell, to meet the ambition to become “more flexible, more digital, and more data-based in our working”.

It has “lit up the path” to a civil service that is more agile, less London-centric and makes better use of technology than it has in the past, and the service should keep a hold of some of the ways of working it has developed.

Areas include the use of digital services – there are 57 live digital services and tools related to Covid-19 accessible on GOV.UK, with up to 158 million weekly views at peak – and the use of remote working.

The Cabinet Office revealed in February that departments were working with it to develop plans to move more civil service jobs out of London as part of the Spending Review, and Chisholm said the Covid-19 has now proved that even minister-facing roles could be based further afield.

“Historically, we sometimes had ministers who said: “I don’t mind where you work, but I need you to be in my office at half an hour’s notice,’” Chisholm, who is also Cabinet Office perm sec, said. This has been a major barrier to relocation as ministers have needed to be within a few minutes of the Palace of Westminster to attend votes at short notice.

“Now, given that both parliament and ministers have had, along with all of us as civil servants, the experience of working more from home more and using digital platforms for cabinet meetings and even parliamentary hearings, we don’t want to go back to saying that face to face is the only way of doing business,” Chisholm said.

The civil service can also learn from its rapid and evidence-based decision and policymaking during the crisis, Chisholm said. “I think that is very, very healthy and very, very important in my vision for the civil service.”

“People tend to say the civil service is very good at improvising, but not very good at systematic innovation,” he said, but the coronavirus response had included both “impressive improvisation” and “really innovative thinking about how we can learn to live with the virus with more effective use of these track-and-trace systems using technology [and] applying what we know from behavioural science”.

But putting those two things aside, he says, “there are actually elements of our response to this crisis that you would want to keep a hold of”. These include the ability to take good decisions quickly using available data and evidence, making use of skills from multiple disciplines and professions including those outside of government.

Read the full interview with Alex Chisholm from CSW's May edition here.

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