In a speech at Hawarden castle in 1999, the Civil Service was described by Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield as “the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century”. It is an organisation that still carries the mystique of a great historic institution, and which is part of the fabric of our largely unwritten constitution. It has been revered as a paradigm of impartiality, integrity and excellence, copied as the exemplar for governments around the world, parodied affectionately by “Yes Minister”, painfully in “The Thick of it”, and is praised by ministers as “the finest in the world”.
In the face of a great many challenges and changes over the decades, the civil service has shown remarkable adaptability and resilience. Just a few examples of this include digitisation and the embracing by Whitehall of digital government, and the resilience of the civil service in the face of significant staffing cuts in recent years.
Yet when we speak of reform of the civil service, Whitehall has frequently been characterised – including by myself on occasions – as resistant to change. Indeed, in a report published in 2014 entitled Civil Service Reform in the Real World, the Institute for Government (IfG) borrowed Enoch Powell’s conclusion on political careers, stating: “most civil service reforms seem destined to end in failure of one sort or another”. The IfG concluded that even those reforms deemed a success represent a significant underachievement, with opportunities to build on them routinely missed.
Before we reflect on this further, I would like to say a few words about the unique nature of the civil service, in order to provide some context when considering this issue. When giving evidence earlier this week to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which I Chair, Stephen Lovegrove, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, pointed out that reform of the civil service is much harder than reform of a private company because corporations have only one primary concern – that they maximise their profits and their returns to shareholders. The civil service, in contrast, has a much greater number of legitimate ambitions, which makes reform far more complex. As Chris Wormold, Permanent Secretary to the Department for Health added, the civil service’s role as a provider of public services also means that it must adopt a more defensive attitude to risk, innovation and failure. This is because in many areas of public services, for example education or the NHS, failure is not acceptable.
It is with this context in mind that I believe any discussion about reform of the civil service should take place.
Another important point, also made during PACAC’s evidence session this week, is that there are of course, many cases of successful reform across Whitehall, and important lessons regarding the factors that cause attempts to reform the civil service to succeed or fail can be drawn from them. One such case was presented to me last November when I spoke at the Institute for Government on PACAC’s Civil Service inquiry. Sir David Omand, former Permanent Secretary of GCHQ, pointed to the success of GCHQ in adapting to and harnessing the advantages of rapid technological development. Why, he asked, had GCHQ managed this so successfully?
One explanation, as Sir David suggested, is that GCHQ managed their digital transformation without the use of external consultants. This is key because when there is a bias towards outsourcing consultants rather than tackling issues in house, this will inevitably result in a lack of engagement and ownership over the reforms from civil servants themselves. Appearing before PACAC in November, Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service, identified the engagement of the civil service in the development of reforms as a key factor in determining their success. Reform is not something you can do to an organisation from the outside; the will has to come from within.
The use of consultants from outside also poses another issue. This is that once they leave, not only is the momentum lost if those on the inside don’t buy into it, but their skills and knowledge are lost as well. It is for this reason that the best functioning organisations don’t bring in people from outside, but develop talent and the necessary skill-sets within.
Another, more fundamental problem affecting Civil Service reform, and one that PACAC is keen to explore further in its current inquiry into the Civil Service, is how can the Civil Service ensure its sustainability as an organisation when it is government, not the civil service itself, which is responsible for the organisation and its future? PACAC put this question to Lord Kerslake and former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler in a recent evidence session. Lord Kerslake told us that Government must recognise that long-term stewardship of the civil service is: “an activity that will go beyond their particular administration”, and that Government must be willing to support it. Unfortunately, too often leaders invent something new, keen to promote their own agenda rather than improve what has come before. Too often they also engage little with the workings of the civil service and how it is planning for its future; and I was disappointed to hear in PACAC’s evidence session on Tuesday about the lack of engagement of ministers with the new Civil Service Leadership Academy, which will play an important role in ensuring that civil servants are equipped with the leadership skills needed.
I would like to conclude on a positive note, reminding the audience that the Civil Service is overall a hugely successful organisation that has conducted itself throughout its history impartially and with great integrity, upholding one of the fundamental pillars of our constitution in doing so. While reform of the civil service has certainly at times been challenging, there are also many areas, including in the embracing of digital skills, where it has been remarkably successful. What is important is that we understand what the key factors are that cause reform of the civil service to succeed or fail, to better enable meaningful change to take place.
 Quoted in PASC, Truth to Power: How Civil Service Reform Can Succeed, 2013, p7, paragraph 7