Veteran Whitehall-watchers could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the oft-repeated claim the UK has the best civil service in the world.
But now Mark Lowcock, the top official at the Department for International Development (DfID), has shed light on the government's efforts to harness the power of open data to provide a much more "rigorous" assessment of just how effective civil services around the world are.
Since last year, the Cabinet Office Insights and Analysis Team has been looking to draw up an "objective, comprehensive and transparent" new measure of performance for international public administrations, taking into account factors including transparency, innovation and the ability to ensure value for money.
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Officials believe that new measure could help to both drive up standards internationally and highlight areas where the UK civil service itself needs to get better.
Speaking to Civil Service World, Lowcock – who, as a member of Whitehall's top leadership group the Civil Service Board, is overseeing the project – said finding a way of comparing the UK civil service with other countries was "not that easy to do".
But the DfID permanent secretary said he believed such a measure could "make sure the British civil service is as good as it can be and keeps getting better".
"Lots of people assert that the UK has perhaps the world's best civil service," he said. "As it happens, having studied lots of civil services, I think that may well be true.
"But there's no evidence base or data or rigorous analytical framework to stand up that claim in any way. When we've done this piece of work people will be able to look at the data and see whether they agree with the results or don't agree with the results.
"And then, as time passes, if we regularly update the indicators we'll be able to see what we're getting better at, what we still need to be better at, and how we compare over time with other countries."
While international measures of government effectiveness do already exist, the Insights and Analysis team has argued that their focus is too narrow.
The UK ranks 22nd out of 210 countries in the World Bank's Government Effectiveness measures, for example, below countries such as Singapore, Denmark and Canada. But the Cabinet Office team believes that this indicator is too focused on the impact of regulation on business and relies on datasets which are not made available for wider public scrutiny.
The Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Government Indicators, meanwhile – in which the UK ranks 8th, ahead of Germany, Poland and Australia but behind the United States – have also been ruled out, with the Cabinet Office saying that measure does not give enough weighting to areas including digital.
According to Lowcock, the team has so far settled on "something like 70 to 90" metrics of effectiveness, looking at "20 or 30 countries" to see how they compare.
And the DfID perm sec said the new indicator would take into account both the "attributes" of a good civil service – including whether it was staffed by officials with "a high degree of integrity" and who were "motivated, engaged and committed" – as well the "functions" of good government, including its ability to collect taxes, develop policy and be held to account.
The team has already developed a "straw man" first version of the indicator, with the work now being independently scrutinised by academics, including from the Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government think tank.
But the government was, Lowcock said, "resisting" revealing where the UK ranked according to the new measure until later in the year because it wanted to ensure that the indicator was first seen as "robust" and "credible", rather than a skewed attempt to prove that the UK had the best civil service.
"In the long-term this kind of tool for the civil services of the world is a useful thing to have," he said. "To see who is where, what everyone should be aspiring to. But it doesn't really matter where you are in that league table. There will always be things that you're less good at than you want to be good at and that you're going to be aspiring to do better on. Just having a light shone on that, wherever you are in the league table, is a powerful thing."
CSW's full interview with Mark Lowcock will be published later this month. Photographs by Paul Heartfield