Politics beats policy in reform plan

Good ideas on policymaking meet risky ones on accountability

By Matt.Ross

27 Jun 2012

There is much that is useful in the Civil Service Reform Plan. Okay, so it’s a “road map, not a revolution” (see p6-7): it gives details and timescales for how the government will achieve its existing ambitions to develop the civil service, while restricting really radical thinking to Michael Gove’s fiefdom. Yet such a road map is urgently needed.

As the plan hints, reforms such as ‘digital by default’ and shared services must move more quickly if they’re to help ameliorate budget cuts. There are also sensible plans to boost skills development; strengthen the professions, management data and project management; and more “actively manage” career development from the centre (Kerslake news, p1).

Sadly, as Gill Morgan made clear this week, trust between ministers and civil servants is weakening (Morgan news, p1); this is likely to constrain officials’ enthusiasm for the reforms. And as she hinted, the plan appears to divide civil servants into two groups: high-flyers, and incompetent slackers. If most civil servants feel forgotten and are denigrated in the press by unnamed ministers, government will never get full value from them.

Worse, behind these delivery challenges, the plan is also threatened by structural tensions. The sections on policymaking largely make sense; they aim, for example, to bring more voices into policy formation, gain the views of delivery professionals, and strengthen “horizon scanning” in search of dangers and opportunities. Heywood’s ‘NICE for social policy’ is a helpful attempt to build policy on a scientific evidence base. There are warm words about “realistic timescales and professional project planning”, and the need for ministers to avoid “announcing too much detail before implementation has been fully thought through.”

Other sections of the plan, however, risk badly undermining its drive for effective, realistic policymaking. The drive’s very existence shows that ministers recognise the need to improve: given a broadly supportive press, the number of U-turns is far greater than can be attributed to the compromises of coalition. But are these U-turns a result of civil servants’ own failures to consider all the risks? In CSW’s analysis, more are caused by ministers’ adherence to highly-political plans made in Opposition; hasty reactions to media furorés; and an obsession with presentation over substance.

Unfortunately, the plans to increase perm secs’ accountability to secretaries of state risk worsening these problems. If they owe their jobs more overtly to ministers, and are judged on their ability to realise policies written by ministers into their performance targets – particularly if a failure to hit targets could plunge them into special measures (White news, p1) – officials may find it ever more tricky to question the demands of ministers for whom political calculations often trump the need for policies that work.

What’s more, these moves to put ministers more firmly in the driving seat coincide with a creeping politicisation of some policymaking roles. Many senior officials are concerned by ministers’ appointments of growing numbers of civil servants without open competitions; yet the plan recognises and supports this trend, which adds more weight to the overtly political forces influencing policymaking. Meanwhile, this government’s special advisers are overwhelmingly media and PR professionals, vastly outnumbering those spads who earned their spurs as policy experts.

In this context, the social policy NICE will run up against hard political interests far greater than itself. As our book review explains, science is very much the ugly sister in the debates held in private offices (see p22). The mooted social policy scrutineer is, to be frank, another Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the making; and, like Professor Nutt, it will lose out in any clash with ministers’ perceived political interests.

Meanwhile, a stronger horizon-scanning capability is useful, but in reality cataclysms such as the credit crunch rarely arrive unheralded. Business secretary Vince Cable, amongst others, warned for years about the City’s unfettered manufacturing of debt – but the remedies his diagnosis required were unpalatable to a Labour government unable to challenge the foundations of its economic policies. And while the plan’s talk of realistic delivery timescales and good project planning is entirely sensible, it was only weeks ago that the home secretary tried to kill the border controls controversy by breaking up UKBA – apparently without any research, planning or impact assessments whatsoever.

The reform plan’s passages on policymaking include both astute observations, and well-conceived ideas for taking a step forward in policymaking. But in its reforms to accountability, the plan risks pushing policymaking two steps back. None of these actions will create dramatic change, or do so quickly. As noted, this is a road map not a revolution – and a rather pedestrian road map at that. But as civil servants use their new map to follow the marked route towards better policymaking, they may find themselves facing oncoming traffic; for the pressures behind better policymaking are matched here by other forces that increase the power of ministers – and where the two forces meet on a narrow lane, the politicians will always claim the right of way. ?

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

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