Thoughts and observations about today’s White Paper. (See Telegraph article here too).
The White Paper on the reform of the civil service – published today – has been long overdue. I think so anyway. There are a myriad of reasons as to why a substantial and coherent plan has not been put forward – not least the constant ministerial churn under both Blair and Brown. It’s been all too easy for past administrations to place comprehensive reform under the ‘too difficult to deal with now’ pile. Far easier to deal with things bit by bit – whether setting up a quango here or an advisory body there, appointing some political or special advisers – or ‘tsars’ somewhere else in order to get changes done rather than overhauling the system itself.
The financial crisis and the 2010 election.
Both of these are acknowledged as drivers in the reform. I’ve heard a number of people say that one of the biggest drivers for innovation is massive cost-cutting. Minor cost-cutting encourages salami-slicing of budgets. Drop a post here or an initiative there, save on biscuits or training courses…but carry on business as usual. When you’re about to lose 40% of your budget – as my former workplace is in the process of, you have to start from scratch. Which in part is how it shrank from having 7 ‘groups’ headed by directors general to 3.
There is then the impact of the 2010 election and the formation of the Coalition. Chances are had Cameron won outright, there would have been a few more reshuffles. Coalition makes this harder. Cameron cannot simply pick who he wants to be in whichever department he likes – he has to account for Nick Clegg, and in particular whether his ministers will get on with their Liberal Democrat counterparts. The Coalition too has been put together with a mindset of lasting all the way through to 2015 to the extent that it has a number of stabilisers built into it. One of the informal ones was around reducing the number and scale of ministerial reshuffles. As a result, ministers went into their posts knowing that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were going to give them several years in post (scandals aside) to try and implement the reforms concerned. As far as Cabinet Office was concerned, this gave Francis Maude breathing space to plan not just for this reform but also his work on all things digital.
Two less high profile drivers: Social Media and…the Institute for Government?
I’m not just saying these because I’m a social media addict on the former and because the IfG gave Puffles some jelly bellies at the last seminar they hosted on the latter. During my final years in the civil service I wondered why no steps had been taken to fill the gap left by the now defunct Royal Institute for Public Administration. What was left of it was absorbed by Capita, with everything else either finding its way into the National Archives or shredded.
The IfG has been a very useful sounding board for improving public administration. (It’s also notoriously difficult to get into too – much as I would one day like to work there!) Essentially it has been a critical friend to the civil service, taking a longer term view about public administration at a safe-enough distance from the furnace of Whitehall just around the corner from its splendid settings. Don’t get me wrong – they’ll give ministers a kicking when they deserve it. Jill Rutter did exactly this when the miserable Beecroft report was published.
On social media, the pressure of people using it – and using it effectively has forced the hand of government on one side, while incentivising it on the other. I started looking at this while I was still in the civil service. Reactions at the time ranged from “This isn’t part of your objectives” to “This is really good stuff – keep going”. In terms of having its hand forced, I blogged earlier about how social media users were forcing the hand of organisations who were not on social media - as well as blogging about how social media users had ways of making large organisations talk. On the politics side a critical mass of MPs are now using social media in a manner that is helping them scrutinise government far more effectively than in recent years. There is also the fact that many MPs that were elected in 2010 were already using social media when they took office. There was a noticeable ‘step change’ in how the civil service started using social media when the Coalition came in.
What of the reforms themselves?
There is actually a lot of really good stuff in there. No – really. Unlike the Beecroft report referred to above, clearly a huge amount of work and imagination has gone into this. For a start, the proposals strengthen and make more accountable the role of a permanent and impartial civil service. On accountability, I have previously called for more senior civil servants to face greater levels of scrutiny for the work that they do – in particular those on six-figure salaries. This clarity I hope will make it easier for Parliament to hold the executive to account – making it clear where there is policy failure from ministers and delivery failure from officials.
It should also be noted that this White Paper is not the ‘end game’, but is something that will evolve over time. This for me makes sense because things that are printed on paper have a habit of becoming obsolete very quickly. Perhaps a reflection why as far as White Papers go, this one is relatively short.
Sir Bob Kerslake commented in the new social media guidance that the civil service was going to have a flatter/less hierarchical structure than in the past. Francis Maude in his ministerial statement said that ‘rampant gradism’ is one of the things that frustrates many civil servants. I was one of them that was frustrated. In my early days stuck as a junior administrative officer I was limited in what I could do and which meetings I could attend.
The recommendations on management information systems is welcome – this is something that Maude mentioned at a recent seminar at the Institute for Government. This will make it easier for Parliament to hold governments and the civil service. It will put a greater focus on evidence-bases as being the under-pinning of policy development. Keep an eye out on the October date when the plans are expected to be in place.
Maude’s comments about ‘operational’ roles is something that continues from what Sir Gus, now Lord O’Donnell said on many occasions. O’Donnell said at a seminar I attended back in 2007 that he was going to be the last cabinet secretary that had no operational delivery experience. Hence it was not surprising to me when Sir Bob Kerslake was appointed. Again in days gone by, I wondered why at policy level there were not more people with direct delivery experience working in policy teams. More people with teaching experience in education policy, local government officers in DCLG, more former police officers in the Home Office. Again, I’m thinking policy teams – people who can flag up things that in their experience may not work on the ground.
I’m also interested in seeing how these reforms will break silos within Whitehall. The switch to the GovUK branding gives the feel of moving away from departmental identities to a more corporate ‘civil service’ identity – which I kind of like. The reason being that departments have a habit of changing names regularly, at great cost. Far better and smoother to have some sort of consistency, as well as a greater ability to share expertise. Social media networks and the use of, I hope, will assist in this. One of the things that I love about the Teacamp network is that it brings together people from across Whitehall and beyond, from a range of different backgrounds to learn and problem solve…and drink tea…and beer. Will we see more of such grassroots networks elsewhere? I helped form one in Cambridge – Teacambs!
Concerns – I have a few.
The main concerns I have are around maintaining integrity around policy-making. Simon Parker gave one view and I gave another on open-sourcing vs outsourcing. If the Government wants to go down those routes, it needs to ensure it properly deals with the risks that both Simon and I have outlined. Given that Maude has said there will be a greater amount of commissioning from the private sector, one of the things I would like to see the Public Administration and Public Accounts Select Committees do is to hold an inquiry into maintaining proper accountability as the public sector fragments. Margaret Hodge has spoken at length on civil service accountability. This specific aspect of accountability – contractual accountability (that I blogged about here) is something that needs looking at as more of the functions of the public sector are delivered by outside organisations.
It’s noticeable that both Prospect and the PCS Union – two of the larger civil service unions have come out against the plans. Understandably they have focused on pay and conditions. The risk as they see it is that buried in the plans are worsening terms and conditions. Continued worsening terms and conditions won’t help. One of the things that attracts high calibre people to the civil service – in particular women – is its far better record on flexible working and childcare compared to the private sector. As a result it is able to employ and keep hold of high calibre staff in the way the private sector would not. I’ve met lots of women who have said that they could have worked in the private sector but chose not to.
As an aside, what I hope the trade unions will do is to take on some of the learning on digital and social media to improve their relationships with their members. There is huge scope for this - the FDA Union still does not have a Twitter account - despite me pushing for them to set one up. Interestingly one of its sections – the ARC Union – has one.
I hope that the reforms work out and lead to improvements for all concerned – in particular those on the front line delivering public services. What I don’t want to see is ministers turning on their civil servants. That helps no one.
Will we see fewer Whitehall departments?
Simon Parker tipped off Puffles on this one – the power of Twitter. Adrian Harvey of the NLGN think tank asked whether the Department for Communities and Local Government should be scrapped. With the shrinking of the state, I would be surprised if the number of ministers and departments remained as is. This is something that I’ll blog about in the near future.