Replenishing the toolbox

In recent times, new delivery challenges and rising tensions between officials and politicians have led to calls for an inquiry into the civil service. Joshua Chambers asks how Whitehall can ensure it has the right tools for the job 

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By Joshua Chambers

03 Jun 2014

Every cabinet maker needs the best possible toolbox, and there’s none finer than the one bearing the inscription of ‘Her Majesty’s Civil Service’.

The civil service has, like an exquisitely-fashioned woodworkers’ storage chest, supported the construction and maintenance of many cabinets: polished and upgraded by successive prime ministers, it contains inside its dovetailed joints the instruments used to service the machinery of government.

These tools fulfil an assortment of roles. At their best, they can carve out a policy, sand down an unexpected problem, tighten up some loose thinking, and slice through wasteful excess. But as times change, new equipment is also needed: microchips for digital delivery, shock absorbers to cope with the unexpected, and a whole suite of commercial tools to allow closer integration with the private sector.

The need for the latest equipment has increased over the past few years. The workload has increased – with an ambitious programme of reform across the public sector – while austerity has reduced the number of people available to deliver these changes. Meanwhile, friction between politicians and officials has led to greater wear and tear on the machinery of government. Senior civil service turnover has been high, and some high-profile delivery failures have led to finger-pointing on all sides – by ministers and civil servants, the allies of each, parliament and the press.

As these pressures and tensions have increased, the idea of holding a broader inquiry into the future of the civil service has gained currency. Those in favour believe it’s important to take a step back and consider whether the civil service is capable of coping with the long-term challenges it’s facing. Those against believe that it is at best an unnecessary distraction from the existing Civil Service Reform Plan, and at worst that it threatens to unbalance and weaken our democracy.

While there are mixed views on whether an inquiry should be held, the debate has thrown up some larger – and more substantive – questions. The civil service, like any institution, faces great challenges in the future, and needs to consider how best to serve them. So CSW has held its own miniature inquiry, speaking to the great and the good across Whitehall and beyond to understand the core debates that the civil service will have to tackle, and some of the stances taken on each of them.

Having a lathe?
It’s first important to examine why some people have called for an inquiry, and the issues that people think it should address. The chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), Bernard Jenkin MP, notes that there hasn’t been an inquiry into the future of the civil service since 1968 – “and that was successfully sabotaged,” he comments – and argues that it’s time to hold another because of “all that has changed in technology, society, politics, the economy and the UK’s place in the world since 1968.” Also, there’s a great deal of reform currently ongoing in Whitehall, he adds, and a parliamentary inquiry would allow for greater consideration and scrutiny of that work.

Two other supporters of an inquiry highlight the challenges facing the civil service: Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union; and Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP and current lead non-executive for the UK government. “The scale of the challenge the civil service is currently facing – and will continue to face over the next Parliament – lends itself to the argument that a more strategic look at what can be expected from the civil service is needed,” Penman says. Browne, meanwhile, pointed out at the Institute for Government last year that the current model of governance “was built for the 19th century, when government was slow-moving and uncomplicated. We now expect the state to deliver more, from a declining resource base, and with a staff which is being asked to do things they are not necessarily trained to do.” He welcomes the government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, but tells CSW that “our system of public administration faces deeper questions.”

Another argument for an inquiry lies in what Jenkin calls the “deterioration” of relations between ministers and officials. Former cabinet secretary Robin Butler agrees: “Relations between politicians – not just ministers in the present government, but politicians in general – and the civil service have reached a point where you could almost say there’s a boil that needs lancing,” he says. 

Butler adds that there are pressures on the ‘Northcote Trevelyan model’ of an impartial, objective civil service, and notes that over the past couple of years there have been moves to give ministers far greater appointment powers over some groups of civil servants. The former head of the Scottish Civil Service, Sir John Elvidge, also cites the quiet erosion of the permanent civil service model, saying that “we’re at risk of driving through some fundamental changes, and I think if we are going to move significantly away from what we might for shorthand call the Northcote Trevelyan model, then that needs a more thorough and broad examination than I think the current UK government’s documents on this have provided.”

That said, there are few prospects of any such inquiry being set up in the short term. As Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, notes: “the idea is effectively dead this side of a general election. There is not going to be a parliamentary commission of either House.” Instead, he calls for “continuing parliamentary inquiries into specific issues, as already occurs. And there should certainly be a wider public debate on the future of Whitehall.”

Chiselling away at the idea
Two former cabinet secretaries, Lords O’Donnell Turnbull, tell CSW that they oppose the idea of holding an inquiry into the civil service. Turnbull says that the idea “implies that the problems of the government are down to shortcomings in the civil service,” and that “this is a severe distortion of the issue.” Whilst accepting that there have been delivery failures, he says he’s “cynical enough to believe that the politicians have deliberately promoted this idea in order to exculpate themselves.”

Further, Turnbull thinks the platform would allow an argument to be built for further politicisation of the civil service. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010 enshrined the Northcote Trevelyan principles in legislation, he notes, and “after about 150 years of debate, I fail to understand why, after only four years, a small group of ministers is trying to unpick this and insert a greater role for political appointees. An inquiry focused on civil service reform simply provides a platform for this campaign.” 

Meanwhile, the current leaders of the civil service oppose an inquiry because they think it would simply delay the implementation of their current reform programme. The head of the civil service and cabinet secretary have both said as much to PASC; and Ian Watmore, a former Cabinet Office permanent secretary and government chief operating officer, says that “it would be a distraction for everyone.” Like Turnbull, he believes “the people who do call for such an inquiry are people for whom this is their life – thinking about the civil service and worrying about it – but it’s also a Trojan Horse for the creeping politicisation of the civil service.” Watmore adds that the most important politicians in the country are focussed on the bigger issues of the economy, housing, the future of Scotland and Europe, while “this debate about the future of the civil service is focussed at second-tier level.”

Drilling down
Whether there’s an inquiry or not, most commentators can pick out areas of the civil service that they think need reform. O’Donnell says that there are 10 key issues in government that should be examined. The first five focus on the operation of government: “How to raise the status of politics and public service to ensure we attract the best people; how do we ensure the letter and spirit of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act is implemented; how best should government define its objectives; how can we incorporate all the advances in our understanding of how people make decisions to improve the way government operates; and how we can help ministers prepare for and carry out their roles.”

O’Donnell also wants to examine the broader political sphere, asking: “How can we improve the effectiveness of Parliament by improving the diversity of its members; how can we engage the public to be more active in our democracy; how can we help people make informed choices at elections – eg. by having an independent body prepare costings of each party’s manifesto; how can we improve the way the Commons is perceived by the public, including adjusting to the world of fixed-term parliaments; and how can we make our general elections representative of how people vote, eg. by reducing the disparities in the sizes of constituencies.” He notes that “if these changes were made, then we would be in an excellent position to fine tune how ministers and civil servants can most effectively work together.”

Butler and Elvidge both want to see more scrutiny and debate over reforms that might lead to politicisation of the civil service and undermine the principles of the Northcote Trevelyan Act. The latter believes that those who suggest that the current moves to give ministers more power in civil service appointments “are not fundamentally changing the model” are being “dishonest”.
Meanwhile, Riddell and Browne both want consideration of the broader delivery models of the civil service. “An inquiry will only ever work if it concentrates on the longer-term issues of the structure of Whitehall and its capabilities in an age of austerity,” says Riddell, adding that “it must also consider the role of ministers, as well as civil servants.” Browne agrees there’s a need to examine ministers’ responsibilities, and also wants examination of Parliament and lines of accountability.

Pliering their trade
To help move the discussion on, CSW has picked seven key debates that will help shape the future of the civil service, asking participants for their views on each. The first, in an era of special advisers and consultants, revolves around the key roles of civil servants in the 21st century, and whether there are any roles or jobs that shouldn’t be held by them. This question leads to another: what are the key skills that civil servants need in the 21st century to best fulfil those roles?

Most commentators agree that the key role of a civil servant should remain those set out in the Northcote Trevelyan Act, which established the civil service: serving the government of the day fairly and objectively. Riddell adds that “at the most senior level, permanent secretaries have a duty to look after the long term health of their departments, although this function is not formally recognised by ministers.” Meanwhile, Penman empahsises the duty to “speak truth unto power.”

Discussion of skills tends to focus on the newer technical and technological capabilities required for a changing world, notably in the Civil Service Capabilities Plan – but Elvidge argues that the traditional skills of understanding government and parliamentary processes must remain a priority, including knowledge of administrative law, literacy and commercial literacy. “People coming into senior levels from elsewhere, bringing very considerable skills but lacking a degree of professional knowledge of the business they’ve entered, would not be regarded as acceptable in other professions,” he says. Political intelligence is also crucial: “There’s a more tangible skill about empathetic understanding of the political domain, and understanding the demands and challenges of those that do operate in the political sphere.”

That said, Watmore does highlight the need for the civil service to be able to cope with the latest trends. This is particularly true in fields such as communications, he says: “We live in a world where the scrutiny is more immediate and more instantaneous and more global, so people need to be able to respond in a 24 hour way.” 
The government’s Civil Service Capabilities Plan set out four priority areas: digital, commercial, project management, and leadership of change. It’s a sensible list, says Watmore, adding that whilst “you could have a political debate on whether more public services should be in private hands or mixed hands, whatever the answer to that debate, you need people with more acute commercial skills.”

Riddell thinks that the need for commercial skills has become obvious in recent years. “High-profile outsourcing failures demonstrate the need for greater commercial and contractual nous to ensure high quality public service delivery that represents good value for money,” he says. The development of the Crown Commercial Service, the Commissioning Academy, and the establishment of links with the Said Business School are all helping here, he says, leading to “better stewardship of public service markets, together with increased transparency around provider performance, profits and supply chains”.

On the project management side, in 2013 Browne wrote a report for the government – Getting a Grip – on the topic of leadership and management of major projects. “The civil service lags behind the best-performing private sector companies when it comes to the skills and behaviours associated with world-class project leadership and management,” he says. However, he believes that the civil service leadership is already dealing with this challenge well.

The unvarnished truth
On the first big topic, then, there is a lot of consensus. This is not the case on our second: relations between ministers and officials. It has frequently been suggested that there is tension in what civil service historian Lord Hennessy has called “the governing marriage” between ministers and officials – with some of our commentators among the combatants. What’s more, the Institute for Government recently warned that “maintaining productive relationships between ministers and civil servants will get even tougher” after 2015, as finding departmental efficiencies becomes even more difficult. CSW therefore asked participants how organisational structures, constitutional arrangements, processes and/or powers should be changed to ensure a close, harmonious relationship between ministers and their officials.

Riddell thinks there are three reasons why there has been “strain in the governing marriage”. First, ministers have been critical of civil service capabilities, skills and performance in handling big infrastructure and technology projects, and want a broader range of policy advice. Second, ministers are increasingly reluctant to take responsibility for mistakes that have been made by civil servants who they haven’t appointed. And third, civil servants feel insecure, thanks both to these two points and to the budget cuts that have cut a swathe through officials’ ranks. “Anonymous briefings, where civil servants have been named, have not helped,” he adds.

Watmore, though, argues that this isn’t a growing problem. “The relationship varies by individual minister in any political environment. Under Labour, everybody knew there were certain areas where people got on better than others. I don’t think it’s particularly better or worse than it was in the past,” he comments, pointing out that “the big beasts of government are some of the people who have the best relationships with the civil service.” He also notes that while spending cuts will be tougher after 2015, they’re “most likely to fall more widely on the wider public sector, because the civil service itself is quite a small percentage now of total public services”.

Penman says that civil servants “need to be accountable to ministers and, where appropriate, to Parliament for their actions and performance. But like any employee, they also need the opportunity to be able to defend their actions and not be tried in public.” He argues that “too often, accountability is viewed through the prism of the political and media scramble for someone to blame when something goes wrong.” Penman warns that the move to create ‘extended ministerial offices’ – under which ministers choose some of their officials and appoint others from outside government – could be destabilising without solving the broader problems of accountability and respect.

It’s a matter of attitudes, Butler believes. “Both sides need to respect the responsibility of the others and be prepared to work in partnership, and avoid acrimony between the two sides and recrimination – from whichever side it comes,” he says.

Riddell has four recommendations for solving the current problems. Unlike Penman, he backs the creation of a team of expert advisers in extended ministerial offices – though he warns that “private offices must not become detached from their departments.” Second, he thinks that accountability at the top must be improved, with performance management for permanent secretaries strengthened. Third, ministers should have the final say over the appointment of their permanent secretaries; and fourth, ministers should allow permanent secretaries to plan for the future of their department.

However, the recent problems in the UK-wide civil service shouldn’t be allowed to colour perceptions of the entire model, Elvidge argues – reform may not be necessary. While there have been troubles in Whitehall, “it’s a bit like saying that because one marriage is in trouble, all marriages are in trouble. Since relationships in Scotland are generally viewed, I think by both politicians and civil servants, as strong and positive, it simply defies the evidence to say that we have a framework that cannot produce harmonious relationships.”

Setting a blueprint 
Our third topic has also received a great deal of coverage and speculation over the past few years: the leadership structure of the civil service. Since Lord O’Donnell retired at the end of 2011, his job has been split between three figures: cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake, and – in a less influential role than those two top figures – Cabinet Office permanent secretary Richard Heaton.

It’s been a matter of debate whether having two figureheads at the top of the civil service – Sir Bob in charge of the corporate side, and Sir Jeremy overseeing policy advice – works better than a cabinet secretary with combined responsibilities. CSW therefore asked: how should organisational structures, constitutional arrangements, processes and/or powers be changed to ensure the best possible model for the leadership of the civil service?

Butler says that it’s a tricky issue, because civil servants expect their leaders to champion them – but these leaders must carry out this role in private, whilst leaving civil servants confident that they’re speaking up. Having a single person fulfil both roles makes that easier, he thinks, because “the civil servant who is closest to the prime minister at a senior level is the cabinet secretary.” He explains that “prime ministers, heads of government, inevitably and rightly have their time taken up by issues other than management – and if management issues of the civil service are to get the necessary attention from the prime minister, that is best done by somebody who has access to the prime minister on those other policy issues which naturally take up most of the prime minister’s time.”

Watmore is also sceptical, saying that the jury is out but he favours having one head for the same reasons given by Butler – keeping the civil service leadership role as close as possible to the prime minister. He understands the reasons for the split, but calls for a review of the situation at the end of the Parliament to see whether it has been a success. And Elvidge is another sceptic, saying: “I think the difficulties created by splitting the leadership are considerable, notwithstanding how hard Bob and Jeremy have worked to make a success of that model.” He argues that “we’re seeing a general movement towards prime ministerial dominance in political structures, yet our civil service structures often have very disaggregated leadership,” and adds: “I often draw comparisons between the formal authorities of my former post in Scotland and the relatively limited formal authorities that any individual [civil servant] has in the UK structure.”

Leaving aside the job split, Riddell thinks it would be more practical to ensure that the permanent secretary of the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, works more closely with Sir Bob and Sir Jeremy on civil service issues. “Better collective leadership is required at the centre of government,” he argues. Penman agrees there’s a need for greater collective leadership, saying that “the civil service has to be more than a collection of individual departments”.

Splice joints, not silos
The fourth debate looks beneath that top layer of the civil service, examining how departments function and collaborate. Is the current federal structure enabling successful policy delivery, or does it pose an obstacle to civil servants working together?

CSW asked how participants think the structure of departments should look after 2015, and what they think is the best model for successful government in the 21st century. Penman agrees that there are big questions to answer: “I struggle to see how any organisation, if it could predict its resources would shrink by 30% to 40% over a decade and yet be expected to deliver more not less, would not fundamentally look at how it was organised.” He continues that “the scale of the challenge departments now face, following what will be [more than] a decade of significant budget reductions, must surely lend itself to a strategic look at how it is organised and what can legitimately be expected of it.”

When calling for an inquiry last year, Browne also highlighted our departmental structure. In days gone by, “as a very rich nation, we could afford to have government made of many parts,” he argued. “That was very necessary: communications were not as good as they are today, actions were much more slow, so you built departments that were self-contained … and [they] executed what were slowly changing policies.” Those constraints have gone, he believes, and in the corporate world “we’ve found that federated systems don’t work: they’re too expensive, they’re too slow, and they deny you the ability to have the best of the best doing things that you need” because you can’t pull skilled people together across organisational boundaries.

If Browne were designing the civil service from scratch to mirror the best principles of the private sector, he told the Institute for Government, it would be “an integrated civil service where you won’t actually see departments in the centre.” Instead, “people will be able to dip in and out of a central core of activity, and that core of activity will be world-class; it will be smaller; it will be able to adapt to the role of the state, which will move because it’s designed to be that flexible. If you need more people on defence, you can do that.” There would be satellite policy themes around a much stronger corporate centre, he added.

In many ways, this model looks like the one already used by the Scottish Government. Elvidge established this, and explains that “building an entire structure of government around the vertical separation of functions, and compounding that with the further fragmentation of elements that have flowed from the Next Steps reforms at the end of the ‘80s – and continue to the present day – is old technology in government terms. It’s a belief that technocratic operational solutions within bounded areas of activity will deliver us future improvements.” While they worked after the Second World War in building the welfare state, he argues, they’ve now achieved everything they can. Instead, we should view government as a single organisation, with civil servants moving flexibly according to policy need.

This model might not lend itself to the UK, some believe. Watmore says the structure of government will be dictated by political considerations – in particular the PM’s desire for a large number of ministers. “I know conversations have been had with all political leaders over quite a number of years about whether there are too many departments, and too many ministers in general, and all prime ministers or aspiring prime ministers say the same thing: they need [a large] number of jobs to reward MPs when they get into government.” For that reason, he thinks its “unreal” to expect a reduction in the number of departments.

Butler is also sceptical of a radical change. “There’s always a difficulty about the inherent conflict between vertical responsibility and horizontal cooperation between departments. I think that it is a mistake to fiddle around with the structure of departments too often. One of the strengths of the present government is that they haven’t tinkered with the organisation of departments too much.” Further, he says, reform isn’t a “question of changing the structure of departments; it’s a question of re-establishing collective feeling in government.” That needs to be encouraged right from the very top, he believes.

Compromises are available between Browne’s model and the current federal system. Riddell notes that more can be done to streamline processes while retaining the federal system – which “enables officials to be divided into manageable groups that deal with similar policy areas.” For example, he says, Whitehall could move much closer to the Scottish model by totally centralising HR, IT and other shared functions: “This is a crucial debate that needs to be opened before next year’s general election,” he comments. Watmore suggests that smaller departments could delegate powers to the centre – on procurement and IT, for example – while the larger ones retain these functions. 

Salary spirit level
After a debate about structures, it’s important to consider the people who will work within them. The fifth debate therefore centres on recruitment and retention. How should the civil service attract the best talent? And what reforms are necessary to ensure that senior civil service turnover remains low when – after a period of falling real incomes caused by poor economic growth – private sector salaries start to rise? 

The topic of civil service salaries is not a new one: documents released in December under the 30-year rule reveal that Michael Heseltine warned in the 1980s that pay constraints were leading to an exodus of talent from his department. There are obvious parallels with the present day – another era of tight pay controls and high senior civil service turnover.

With his private sector experience, Browne’s stance is clear: salaries are important. He told the IfG last year that “we need to open up the system and say: ‘Yes, we’re going to get people in temporarily, and we’re going to pay them three times the prime minister’s current cash compensation because they’re going to make a huge difference to us, they’re going to be with us for three to four years, and then they’re going to go.’ We should have the confidence to say we know it’s going to make a very big difference.”

The head of the FDA trade union, Penman, also – perhaps unsurprisingly – says the pay caps are damaging. “Pay, never fully competitive with the private sector, has for over a decade continued to slide against all comparators, both private and wider public sector,” he says. “Add to this the approach and public comments of a number of politicians – government, opposition, and in the wider parliamentary structures – and there is a real sense that the work [civil servants] do is neither valuable nor valued.”

Butler comments that the civil service “can never match, and should never match, the level of salaries in the private sector – but the compensation has got to be that the job of the civil service is widely well-regarded and respected, and that people who join feel they’re joining a profession which has got high standards and a job which is very well worth doing.” Elvidge also chimes in on this point, saying “the evidence suggests that recruitment takes care of itself if jobs are intrinsically interesting and challenging, and the perceived CV value of a period in government is high in the market.” He thinks that it’ll become tougher to retain people for long periods of their career as career paths change, and adds that “heaping disrespect on top of relatively disadvantageous rewards is certainly not a recipe for addressing the issue.” The UK is an international outlier in the way it treats its civil servants, he adds.

Butler and Watmore both highlight graduate recruitment as a key priority – and, at the moment, a positive indicator. “It’s essential that the civil service retains its position in universities as a top employer,” Watmore says. “Fast streamers are an absolutely delight to work with: they’re one of the strong assets of the civil service and this country, and we should protect it and nurture it.”
He also sounds a warning on the ongoing public sector pay freeze, saying: “I understand why pay freezes have been necessary, but they do risk trapping very good people in places where the salary has frozen to a point where they can no longer consider that what they’re doing is worth it. Those people are probably going to be some of biggest losses to the civil service, and could easily have stayed had they been allowed a bit of [pay] freedom.” 

Watmore recommends the approach he took when hiring the Government Digital Service – when leaders were permitted unusual freedoms to recruit and set salaries according to value. “Don’t try and drive pay reform through mechanised systems: give them frameworks to set the pay, but allow a reasonable amount of discretion so that the brightest and best can be rewarded,” he says. The Treasury is now piloting greater pay flexibility in Defra, with a view to rolling this out across the civil service.

Butler also thinks that flexibilities should be introduced to allow pay to vary around the regions, rather than being set centrally. “It has to be varied around the country – and in high-cost areas like the South-East, pay has to be higher than areas where the cost of living is lower,” he says.

Plane and simple
There are two more key debates shaping the future of the civil service. The sixth is the career structure of civil servants. In modern Britain, jobs and employers are no longer for life: how can the civil service keep up, ensuring career flexibility and boosting interchange between the civil service and other sections of the economy?

Broadly, participants backed the priorities already set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan. “Permeability is important between the [private and public sectors],” Watmore says. “You want people going both ways.” Butler agrees: “There should be planned interchange in the form of secondments, and the civil service should be open to people both coming in and bringing expertise at later stages of their career, but also returning to the civil service having gone out on their own”. 

However, the reform plan’s ‘On Year On’ update gave these objectives a red rating – with secondments cited as a particular area of difficulty. The direction of travel is widely supported – but we clearly haven’t yet seen enough movement. Elvidge comments that the civil service has made huge strides in flexible recruitment, but “speaking from my own efforts to place people into the private sector for a while to balance out their career development, I would say that’s enormously difficult. That’s the dimension of this that needs attention.”

Browne, meanwhile, wants to see greater interchange between departments and agencies. “The civil service must develop a more sophisticated approach to talent management, both within departments and across government,” he says. “The best private sector organisations know where their most talented people are, nurture them, and engage them on the most challenging issues facing the organisation.” Making this change needs greater flexibility, clearer processes, and a change in behaviour among both senior leaders and high fliers, Browne adds.

The second part of the discussion on career structures revolves around the kinds of experience required in civil service leaders. For Watmore, a leadership position – rather than a management position – starts at director level. Leaders should have both policy and corporate experience, he says, because “in the end, you can’t lead an organisation if there’s a whole swathe of experience that you’ve never had apart from reading about it in a book.” To achieve this, Butler thinks that fewer jobs should be available through open competition when they become vacant – instead, there should be greater placement of high-fliers to ensure that their careers are better planned.

Stop screwing it up!
The final debate is on morale: how can employee engagement be sustained to ensure low turnover and a highly-motivated workforce? Further, are there any particular pay mechanisms or leadership approaches that participants think would be appropriate?

Most, again, talked about the value of respecting staff, both privately and publicly. But another interesting discussion opened up about the value of performance-related pay. “I don’t particularly value performance-related pay in the civil service, because it becomes very artificial,” says Watmore. “You can have people doing heroic jobs in appalling situations, and visa versa.” Instead, he says, “I would prefer to see long-term pay reforms: people who genuinely deserve more, get more, over a long period of time, rather than bonuses.” He adds that “the whole topic of bonuses has become toxic, and however you dress it up it will always be criticised.” Elvidge agrees: “It’s really easy to create financial disincentives” to good work by installing a flawed system of performance-related pay, he says, and bonuses can “sometimes be disruptive of the coherence of teams.”

It’s just one of the many debates that the civil service will need to have in order to continue to be a well-equipped tool chest, ready to serve the government of the day. This mini-inquiry has analysed the seven key debates at the heart of the discussions over the future of the civil service, and each of them has a number of tough problems that require resolution.
Some commentators, such as Lord O’Donnell, argue that the spotlight shouldn’t pick out the civil service, instead illuminating the broader political and government sphere. Yet even within the civil service debate, it’s clear there are a few points that resound throughout the analysis.

First is the concern over the potential politicisation of the civil service, through the implementation of extended ministerial offices and the continued pressure for politicians to win greater appointment powers over the civil service. There are strong arguments on both sides, but critics feel that reforms are being pushed through without sufficient consideration. If there had been more parliamentary consideration of these reforms, it’s quite possible that some of the voices calling for an inquiry would have been stilled. Many of their other points have been raised within the Civil Service Reform Plan, and an inquiry could slow down efforts to make the reforms they believe are necessary.

The second point concerns one of the few areas avoided by the Civil Service Reform Plan: the structures of the civil service. The structure of leadership is debated, but seems less important than the broader question of departmental structures. The federal system does seem to create perverse incentives for public officials – yet other models are a risk, and much evidence, discussion and persuasion would be required before making substantial changes. Even then, the number of ministerial positions would probably need to remain the same. The turbo-charging of the functional leadership model that Ian Watmore proposes – where smaller departments give up their procurement, IT and HR functions to the centre – seems the most likely and least contentious option for future reform.

Third is recruitment: salaries aren’t the be-all and end-all in the civil service, but Whitehall must be careful not to alienate its staff or make it impossible for people to remain in their jobs. Any movement here runs into fierce objections from one side or another, but the Defra salary flexibility pilot and Butler’s support for regional pay suggest that it may be possible to reward top talent and make civil service jobs financial viable without dramatically increasing the civil service wage bill. 

This point sits alongside a broader point about talent management and interchange: a modern civil service needs to ensure flexibility, and ensure that high fliers can be accommodated in challenging posts. Interchange is not being sufficiently prioritised by the leadership of the civil service. An inquiry could put greater pressure on Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake to drive through these changes – but so could other groups and figures. This is particularly true of the Public Administration Select Committee, which appears to be pushing for an inquiry rather than getting stuck in to examine the specific topics that it thinks an inquiry should examine. 

The final point is about the tone and manner of the debate around the civil service. The need for greater public respect for civil servants is a message that’s come out again and again. More public declarations of respect and admiration for our civil service would help counteract the negative whispers of unattributable government sources, helping government officials to feel that their bosses have got their backs – and easing many of the current tensions and frictions.

If the prime minister is a cabinet-maker caring for and relying on his well-stocked tool chest, he should remember the old carpenter’s adage: only a bad workman blames his tools.

See also: O'Donnell and Turnbull call for inquiry into politicians, not civil service

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