Government continues civil service blame game

The British civil service is widely admired and rightly so for its core values of honesty, impartiality, and professionalism. However, in terms of accountability, management culture, and increased flexibility there is always much more to do.

Labour will support and indeed welcome sensible reforms such as improving management culture, information systems and skills development, but the point of reform after all is to make something better than it was before and until we see more detail it is not clear how far these reforms will move us forward.

Let’s be clear, the proposals do little to correct the chaos over which this government has presided. Low morale and high turnover have swept across the Civil Service, with one in three senior civil servants leaving voluntarily since the Coalition formed in May 2010.

There are some positives measures in the reform programme that could help to reduce the rigid hierarchical structures of the Civil Service and the attempt to improve the standards of management in the public service.
Nonetheless there are some serious questions to be asked about some of the proposals, namely: outsourcing policy advice; making it easier to sack civil servants, reducing the size of the Civil Service and giving ministers more say in appointing permanent secretaries.

Although it is good government to draw on more than one source of advice when forming policy, it is not clear how the tendering processes will work. Determining the winning tender purely on lowest price raises serious issues and equally obvious problems arise when it is done purely on ideological orientation. Although outsourcing policy advice might seem like a good idea, the truth is that the devil is in the detail.

Francis Maude has proposed that the performance of the worst 10% of civil servants be addressed. Although this is not new as the Performance Management Guidelines already identify the worst 10% of civil servants, the proposals could mean the Government will move away from the current procedures of “intensive support, training and coaching”. There is clearly a danger that the government will continue to indulge in a blame game. After all, the problems this government face are a failure of ministers and not of the Civil Service.

The White Paper intends to further reduce the size of the civil service from 440,000 to 380,000. It is essential to protect front-line services and try to make cuts to back office staff, however, the Institute for Government have already said “There is no more money to be saved from the back office – that tap has run dry”. Of course, staff reductions on this scale are not easy and we are not talking here about numbers on a page but real human beings facing redundancy at a time of high unemployment. Such people chose to serve the public.

Staffing estimates must be based on detailed risk impact assessments otherwise the country could be left vulnerable as a result of further cuts to services, for example at the UK Borders Agency or in the police service. However, no risk impact assessments have been published.

The relationship between ministers and the Civil Service has always been sensitive and allowing ministers to have a say in the appointment of their permanent secretary will introduce a step change in this relationship. There is a concern that this will lead to cronyism and of a dangerous politicisation of the Civil Service. The Government needs to say how they will proceed with the appointment of civil servants and in the selection of external agencies providing policy advice, and assure us that neither of these matters will fall into disrepute because of ideological or even personal favouritism.

This article first appeared on the Institute for Government website.

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