Civil Service reform: why it matters

January 13th, 2013

The goal for all Labour supporters is clear – win back power in 2015. What does this mean? Well, being in government. Obviously. It is only when you are in government that you can pull the levers of power right? With our focus on political messaging, activism and policy we seem to have lost sight of the machinery of government itself. Without an effective system to implement our policy then the ramifications of decisions made by government is lessened.

During A level politics (now some time ago), we were made to study all the key components of the system – House of Commons, House of Lords, the judiciary and the civil service. It was only by seeing government as a combination of these parts that you can get an understanding of the whole. Studying the civil service was to look at a vital part of the workings of government; that and a wonderful excuse to watch episodes of ‘Yes Minister’. 

Perhaps it is surprising that the criticism of the Tory initiative launched by Francis Maude to reform the civil service in June of last year is under reported. Yesterday the Commons public administration select committee heard evidence about the proposed reforms. The verdict was almost universally damning. Among various issues identified included a tendency for individuals to think in silos based around their departments. The ramifications of this are obvious. Department loyalties take precedence over other weightier priorities. There was also a sense that while the recruits to the civil service were undoubtedly high calibre, the level of corporate expertise at the higher echelons can be lacking. The Guardian gives a good summary of the evidence here.

There also appears to be an issue of proper consultation of the public on policy issues. The Times ran an interesting report yesterday on Whitehall pointing to 984 consultations having been set up since Cameron was made Prime Minister. Eric Pickles seems the most ardent fan of consultations having opened 120 consultations since 2010 of which 22 closed without a government response. Similarly, at the Treasury 18 consultations out of 84 were closed without a response and 15 out of 61 at BIS. Instead of resiling from so called bureaucracy, the coalition government seem to be embracing it as a method of avoiding tough decisions.

It is important for effective governance that the civil service (like all other emanations of the state at central or local level) should be able to respond to changes in society. Business has become increasingly complex and specialist skills are required to keep pace with the private sector. However, often the movement between departments of employees means that civil servants are generalists rather than specialists. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to foster inter departmental links either.

Where does this leave us? In need of our own proposals for civil service reform. Securing real power will mean more than being in government. The hash the current lot are making of it should attest to that. For those of you who want a backer with more political kudos than myself, how about Bill Clinton? When he visited London at the end of last year he spoke at an event hosted by Policy Network. One of his key messages was the need for government to perpetually renew itself. He argued that the world keeps evolving and that government must change to keep up. Civil service reform is key to this if our vibrant democracy is to continue to prosper.

We would never want this to be true of our civil service would we?