Opinion: Lord Adonis shares the frustrations he experienced with civil service generalism

By Civil Service World

03 Oct 2012

The notion that Britain has a permanent and expert civil service is largely a misnomer. Most career civil servants change jobs every year or two, unrelated to the needs of the state. They mostly possess superficial subject-specific knowledge and few skills beyond those acquired at school and university. Barely any senior education department officials had taught in a school, let alone managed one. Not many were school governors. Unless they were parents, as likely as not they hadn’t even visited a school since they attended one. Project management skills were in especially short supply, not least among those possessing the title.

Just as an official was getting on top of an individual project or policy issue, they would suddenly disappear, often at a few weeks’ notice. There were a few notable exceptions, but for the most part staying in the same job for more than two years, at most, was seen as a mark of failure. Often, changing job – or even department – was a prerequisite for promotion. I lost Chris Wormald, the best of the directors of the academies programme, after just a year, when he left for another Whitehall department in order to be promoted one civil service grade. When I took this up with Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, Gus protested he was powerless to act because departments were managed autonomously. “My dear Andrew, I am only head of the home civil service,” he said with a smile.

It is no accident that Whitehall is so bad at managing change. It rarely views change programmes – academies are one of the biggest programmes of recent years – as projects requiring continuity of management and real expertise in processes and policy. It is largely hand-to-mouth.

But with enough well-intentioned and capable people around, and large budgets to employ consultants doing jobs that should have been done at a fraction of the cost by civil servants, we muddled through.

Extracted with permission from Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools, by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis was Minister for Education from 2005 - 2008 and is chair of the Labour pressure group Progress

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