Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Polity, Constitution and Governance
The Civil Service and Reform
The government is seeking to shake up the civil service, with reports surfacing
of strained relations between ministers and officials and complaints that some
mandarins are blocking policy.
Unions say staff face unprecedented cutbacks, with morale under pressure and the
civil service’s historic neutrality threatened. Are things really that bad, and
what are the prospects for civil service reform? Here is a range of viewpoints:
Nick Herbert, former minister of policing and criminal justice
We must be able to discuss how Whitehall works without it immediately being
interpreted as a declaration of hostilities
“Whitehall Wars” makes for a good headline but a bad debate. I believe that the
time has come to look again at our system of administration and consider the
case for more radical reform.
But I think it’s wrong to see this issue as an attack on the civil service. Too
often, important discussion about the performance of public services descends
into this kind of debate - we must be able to discuss how Whitehall works
without it immediately being interpreted as a declaration of hostilities.
First, there are questions of accountability. Who, outside Whitehall, would
agree to head an organisation where they would be accountable for everything but
directly control nothing?
And what is the principal role of the civil service? Gus O’Donnell told me that
it was to challenge ministers. I think challenge is healthy in any organisation.
But shouldn’t the first role of the civil service be to support the elected
government to deliver?
Second, the support for ministers needs to be re-examined. Ministers face
challenges and pressures unlike anything experienced by their predecessors, yet
ministerial support is weaker than in the past.
For too long we have been trapped by a fear about the role of special advisers.
I certainly don’t advocate expanding the number of spin doctors. But I do think
there is a case to allow ministers to appoint more expert and other advisers to
their teams, from inside and out of Whitehall.
Third, when so many government programmes rely on commissioning, a weakness in
commercial skills can’t be dismissed. A wider debate is needed about how to
ensure that the brightest and best are drawn into Whitehall.
Fourth, the departmental structure in Whitehall is essentially an historic
legacy. But the silos are a problem. I was astonished to discover how much
energy is dissipated through disagreement and challenge between departments,
when what we need to fix long term problems is coherence of policy.
I worked with some fine officials in government, and I was struck that many of
them seemed as keen to discuss ideas for change as I was. I believe a more open
system, one in which talented individuals could more easily move in and out of
the civil service, would be very attractive to able officials.
But before we arrive at solutions, we need a careful analysis of the
administrative challenges faced by a modern government, including the strengths
and weaknesses of the current system.
Lord Bichard, former permanent secretary
Sadly the current debate about the civil service largely misses the point by
focussing almost solely on the relationship between politicians and officials
and whether it is at an all time low.
That relationship will always pass through good and bad times and both sides
always need to address difficulties when they occur. But whatever the state of
that relationship the real concern should be that the service is no longer fit
for purpose for a modern society because:
1. It has been unable to find ways of working across departmental boundaries and
with other sectors to address today’s big challenges, none of which fit neatly
into the current silos.
2. It remains too risk averse and insufficiently innovative during a time of
great change which demands creative solutions.
3. It lacks some of the key skills needed to be successful, not least
commissioning, procurement and service design.
4. It is too focused on response rather than prevention and fails to reduce
demand and therefore cost.
5. It remains preoccupied with process to the neglect of outcomes.
6. It is centralised, hierarchical and riddled with status.
When will the media, the chattering classes and political leaders address these
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union
The debate on civil service reform needs to move on from the notion that the
civil service is irretrievably dysfunctional
The civil service, like any large organisation public or private, is constantly
reforming and adapting to respond to new challenges.
The current government has tasked the civil service with delivering a radical
reform agenda with significantly fewer resources. Already at its smallest size
since the Second World War, the civil service is still only just over halfway
through the job reduction programme planned to 2015, with further cuts to come
beyond this date.
The debate on civil service reform needs to move on from the notion that the
civil service is irretrievably dysfunctional or that reform only comes from
ministers. Every day, managers at all levels in the service are innovating and
reforming the way the service is organised and public services delivered.
There has always been tension in the relationship between civil servants and
High quality, evidence-based policy advice is often unwelcome when it doesn’t
chime with the philosophy of those proposing the policy but it is necessary, and
competent ministers recognise this. Surrounding themselves with advisers,
appointed for what they believe, rather than what they can do, may result in the
phrase “Yes Minister” being heard more often, but it doesn’t make for good
Ministers need to address the three ‘Rs’ of managing the civil service: reward,
recognition and resources.
The denigration of civil servants combined with pay that’s completely out of
touch with the private sector, and staffing reductions in departments that
simply do not reflect the demands of the reform agenda the government wants to
enact - results in high staff turnover, low morale and a disengaged workforce -
in other words, the antithesis of what the government needs and the public
Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government
Institute for Government
At the Institute for Government we have identified serious inadequacies in
Whitehall that need to be addressed by both ministers and the civil service.
Ministers have legitimate concerns about the quality of work for which they are
held accountable, while civil servants often feel bruised by public and media
criticism at a time of continuing sharp cutbacks and big re-organisations.
We have argued repeatedly that the civil service needs to reform. But as
largescale reform continues in Whitehall it is counter-productive for
politicians and civil servants to engage in mutual scapegoating based on
half-truths and myths which ignore what is really happening.
The priority should be to make the system work more smoothly with greater
clarity about respective roles in order to improve accountability and the
running of projects, based on the realities of governing in the UK.
Politicians say they feel cut off from decision making in their departments so
political support for them is crucial. The government should not apologise for
increasing the number of special advisers in government to broaden the range of
advice and bridge that gap between themselves and the civil servants.
Civil servants have to show they are adaptable and listening to ministers too,
they should challenge decisions without fear of the consequences but know that
the buck stops with ministers and ministers alone must make the final decision.
Our research shows that reform only works if it has the joint backing of
political and civil service leaders and they must now be patient.
For reform to succeed it will require continued efforts by the civil service
supported by consistent political backing from ministers. Above all a mutual
respect for each other’s challenges in these very testing times will go a long
Alan Downey, head of government and public sector at KPMG
Where “Yes, Minister” was once the phrase of choice we are now hearing discord,
with both sides resorting to public criticism of the other. It may have been an
option once, but it is now no longer possible to paper over the cracks as the
latest spat between ministers and mandarins confirms that their relationship is
at an all-time low.
KPMG - Government and Public Sector
There are some specific reasons for the latest breakdown: for example, it is
clear that a 30% reduction in the number of senior civil servants has cut deep
into Whitehall’s capacity, capability and morale. Yet, the problems underlying
the recent outbreak of verbal hostilities have been brewing for many years. The
last government’s relationship with Whitehall followed a similar pattern: after
a honeymoon period ministers began to complain about obstructive behaviour and
the difficulty of getting their policy intentions translated into practice.
The civil service may argue against tinkering with a constitutional relationship
that dates back 160 years. But this is not change for its own sake and the
arguments for breaking with the past are growing stronger by the day.
There are certainly big issues to be addressed: the independence and neutrality
of the civil service; the role of political advisers; whether civil servants
should be held publicly account for delivering results; ministerial involvement
in the appointment of mandarins and the management of their performance.
In looking for a solution, the government would be well advised to cast the net
widely. There may be lessons to be learned in the world of business, where it is
common for chief executives to be appointed on fixed-term contracts and held
personally accountable for achieving the results promised in their business
Whatever the answer, it is increasingly clear that doing nothing is not an
option. We need a robust and open debate about the options, and then we need to
move quickly to implement the changes that will restore trust between
politicians and civil servants.
(Source- BBC News)
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