The government’s reform plans fall well short of the aim of creating a more professional civil service, says Dai Hudd

The government’s reform plans fall well short of the aim of creating a more professional civil service, says Dai Hudd


By Civil Service World

27 Jun 2012

My union Prospect, which represents many thousands of engineers and other specialists in departments and public bodies, is all too familiar with the obsession by governments of all persuasions with issues of policy and management. But what the public cares about is service and services. The acid test is what the reform plans will do to improve delivery of those services.

And what do we get? A fact-finding exercise on skills, which is welcome – and indeed long overdue – but hardly a programme of reform. And a series of internal navel-gazing exercises with slick-sounding names like ‘contestable policies’, ‘project progress reports’, ‘cross-government management information systems’, ‘leadership schemes’ and ‘departmental improvement plans’.

These short-term management consultancy gimmicks are no substitute for clear goals and motivated staff.

Nowhere does the document set out concisely what it expects the civil service to actually do. It identifies the ‘silo’ mentality in much of Whitehall, but says very little about what specific actions will be taken to break down those silos.

When the plan is stripped down, what appears to be planned for the government’s workforce is more of the same: pay and job cuts, again without any indication of what tasks are to be shed or the impact on core skills (which, the report recognises, are ill-defined).

The cuts, bringing the civil service to a new post-war low of 380,000, are to be achieved by a human resources policy that takes it out on people who don’t get on with their boss, which will only create a culture of fear and distrust. In plain language, it’s all stick and no carrot.

This is not a vision of a professional civil service attuned to an economy in crisis or the technological needs of the 21st century. The big issues facing government such as climate change, a looming energy crisis and the need to support technological innovation are simply not adequately addressed.

The truth is that the internal managerial skills promoted by this report – finance, IT, procurement – are narrow subsets of the professional skills government needs in order to discharge its responsibilities, and in particular to maintain its capacity as an ‘intelligent customer’. The recent U-turn on the jet fighters for our new aircraft carriers is an all-too familiar example of what happens when government ignores its own experts – or does without them altogether.

Indeed, the reform plans say nothing at all about the role of scientists and engineers, or experts working in defence, meteorology, vehicle testing, cartography, prison management, nuclear regulation or veterinary science, to name just a few of the key skills employed by government.

In our view, the government’s plans are a sideshow to the much bigger debate that needs to take place on a new employee deal for the civil service, which remains the one major part of the public sector that has not had its pay and conditions reformed in the last 20 years. With the exception of the Senior Salaries Review Body, which only covers senior civil servants, the civil service is also the largest group of public sector workers without an independent pay review body. But none of these issues are discussed, let alone addressed.

If you look very carefully, you can just about detect the outline of some elements in the report that might lead to longer-term change, such as strengthening the skills programme and the role of heads of profession. However, its overall lack of vision makes this a very disappointing document. Its credibility is further weakened by the inclusion of dubious and ill-thought-through policies on localised pay and performance management.

Presenting his statement to the Commons, Francis Maude referred to the Fulton Commission’s report in 1968. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 44 years before the government gets serious about civil service reform. But the omens aren’t good.

Dai Hudd is deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union

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