Opinion: Times are tough but the civil service must seize the reform nettle

When I joined the CSW team in June 2010, the Efficiency and Reform Group had just been created, the civil service had 43,000 more employees, and IT contract renegotiations were but a glint in Francis Maude’s eye. Since then the civil service has – while developing a brand new set of policies – experienced wholesale reforms in fields such as pensions, redundancy pay, training and HR, and the ERG has delivered £8.75bn of savings. Even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being done, the pace of change is impressive.

By Suzannah.Brecknell

22 Feb 2012

Yet many of these achievements have been the result of strong centralisation, with Maude and Treasury minister Danny Alexander pulling firmly on any available lever of spending control. And although the NAO has verified those savings, it’s also questioned the civil service’s ability to undertake the reforms required to keep costs down, and warned that the budget reductions may affect service levels.

The question of service quality will become all the more important in 2012 as the civil service moves, according to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, “from a phase of policy design into a phase of policy implementation” (see p5, CSW 25 January). This year we’ll begin to see whether the recruitment freeze, spending moratoria and other efficiency measures have affected the civil service’s ability to deliver on the government’s aims, and whether those savings remain sustainable.

I shall be watching from a distance, as I’ve just started maternity leave and don’t expect to return until 2013. If the coalition holds, there will then be less than 18 months until the next election – and civil service reform will be fast disappearing from ministerial radars. So civil service leaders only have another 11 months during which real progress can be made in implementing organisational and process changes to help the civil service achieve ‘better for less’. Such changes are essential to deliver not just austerity savings, but long-term value for money.

Three pieces of work will be important to realising this opportunity. First, improving civil service data. The NAO’s assessment of cost savings warns of weaknesses in the input and impact indicators required to assess value for money in any given service. At CSW, I’ve observed a very variable approach to data on Whitehall; departments’ management information in particular needs to change quickly if officials are to make intelligent reforms and create sustainable structures.

Secondly, new skills – such as better contract management and the use of ‘soft power’ – will be needed, both to deliver sustained savings and to implement new policy approaches. This is an area over which Maude has less control: while training provision has been reformed, ultimately departments retain control of training budgets. So it’s not surprising that civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake is talking about strengthening corporate leadership and joint action. The new Major Projects Leadership Academy is probably a good indicator of things to come: departments aren’t instructed to send all their project managers to the academy, but their projects won’t receive Major Projects Authority sign-off unless senior responsible officers have attended.

Finally, culture. Effective reform depends on staff leading change rather than simply accepting diktats from on high. However, the civil service tends to adopt a risk-averse, hierarchical, process-focused approach that mitigates against such bottom-up reform – and not just because a layer of ‘Sir Humphreys’ impede innovation at the top. One senior manager in a big government contractor told me last year that when he tried to involve civil service staff in decision-making, a union leader said: ‘You’re the manager, you make the decisions. Don’t ask us to do your job.’

Many others may share this attitude, particularly as pay is frozen; pensions are reformed; their colleagues leave in droves; and pride in the civil service declines. Kerslake’s response to falling pride is to encourage leaders to praise good work and defend the service against media or political attacks. This will be important – though it would be nice if the journalists and, crucially, the ministers that have criticised the civil service also joined in.

Data is important here, too: if reliable info shows improving outcomes despite the cuts, employees may be encouraged to play a more active role in reforms. But this sort of success story isn’t guaranteed: with the best will in the world, huge budget cuts are likely to have a negative impact on outcomes. So what counts as success? If civil servants manage to maintain outcomes in our communities despite the cuts, they should be praised by leaders who recognise the extremely difficult hand public servants have been dealt.

Realistically, I can’t imagine many politicians queuing up to do so – but senior officials at least should talk up the service’s achievements. That might help to end an attitude of, at best, passive acceptance of reform, and encourage employees to play an active part in shaping a better service for the future.

Suzannah Brecknell is the deputy and online editor of Civil Service World

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