Most people join the public sector because they want to make a difference. Every pound that is wasted, or used ineffectively, is a pound that could’ve been used to improve people’s lives, for example, through increased investment in closing the educational attainment gap, or supporting disabled people into work. In other words, efficiency is not a "technical nice to have", but a moral imperative – core to the mission of government and the good it can do.
An organisation’s priorities live and die by the incentives its staff have to pursue them – including how leaders are held accountable for ensuring they’re delivered. Yet, despite successive governments seeking to achieve greater public sector efficiency and productivity, there are actually few incentives in Whitehall to strive to do more for less.
A large part of the problem is that no one is accountable for much of the policymaking that takes place in Whitehall. High rates of turnover mean that senior officials, and programme leads, can be relatively confident they’ll have moved from programmes before their results are clear. This subverts the honest conversations needed to know whether something can be delivered with the time and resources available. Particularly when programmes often lack clear milestones, or high-quality data about whether interim objectives have been met.
For this to change, senior officials must feel a sense of responsibility for, and ownership over, the results a programme delivers – even after they’ve left post. And we must be much better at retaining senior officials and programme leads in the first place. An example from the heart of government offers a clear template for this.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority – which oversees the delivery of major projects in the UK and sits between the Treasury and Cabinet Office – has implemented a host of measures to retain project leads and boost accountability. These include flexibility over “renumeration, grading and support”, clear length-of-tenure commitments, and a requirement that project leads be signed-off by the chief executive of the IPA before moving into other roles in central government.
"A carefully designed carrot can go a long way. Yet we currently do very little to formally recognise those who identify specific risks to spending, or operational bottlenecks to greater efficiency"
Together, these measures have led to an increase in the average tenure of major project leads from three, to four and a half years. We can, and should, apply similar measures more broadly across government.
At the same time, we must take on the false notion that efficiency is a job for finance directors, Treasury officials, or politicians alone. Instead, as Lord Nick Macpherson wrote in his foreword to the Reform think tank’s new report on this topic, securing the greatest impact from each pound of public spending should be seen as “central to the public servant’s mission”.
Everyone – including junior grades, and those involved in frontline delivery – should be given the support to challenge existing ways of working and to identify potential savings. Not least because they often possess the practical insights and ideas that policy and finance professionals may lack.
There should be specific rewards – including, where appropriate, cash bonuses and formal recognition mechanisms – for officials who unlock these efficiencies. A carefully designed carrot can go a long way. Yet we currently do very little to formally recognise those who identify specific risks to spending, or operational bottlenecks to greater efficiency. Reform’s paper, An efficiency mindset, sets out recommendations to inculcate a genuine culture, or mindset, of efficiency across Whitehall, recognising that spending well should be everyone’s responsibility.
With the public finances as they are, whoever forms the next government will have to have a laser-focus on efficiency. Only by making it a priority at all levels of government, rather than a siloed responsibility for any one department or policy team, can this be achieved.
Patrick King is a researcher for Reform