Lack of collective leadership in civil service - report

Published on Wednesday, 26 March 2014 12:40
Written by Govtoday staff

The lack of a sufficiently visible collective lead by Britain's three most senior civil servants is putting departments at risk of failing to be able to deliver for the next government, the Institute for Government warns today.

As the chancellor made clear in last week's budget, there are "difficult decisions" ahead on public service pay and pensions and "further savings in departments" to be found. However, the cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and permanent secretary to the Treasury are not yet seen as giving the civil service the joined-up corporate leadership required to meet the challenge.

The new Institute for Government (IfG) report, Leading Change in the Civil Service, says "one of the most important divisions among these leaders is the diagnosis of what level of change is required, and whether to continue within the federal model or seek to move beyond it" - making planning ahead even more difficult.

The report states that there is "no co-ordinating narrative for the civil service to lock onto" and that while "leaders of reform report strong prime ministerial support for civil service reform in private...this has little visibility within Whitehall".

Based on more than 300 interviews with senior civil servants, the IfG report also recognises that the civil service should be commended for rising to the challenge of meeting a radical cuts and reform programme since 2010. It is far from the broken institution often portrayed but achieving "once in a lifetime" cuts again will be much more difficult, with many of the easy-pickings already gone.

There are three clear challenges for the civil service to face up to ahead of 2015: improving capability; working across government more effectively; and planning ahead to offer up the best options for further savings. There is a long way to go before achieving them, the report says.

It adds: "With pressure on delivery ahead of the next election, there is very little sign that the civil service has permission from ministers, or has taken the space required, to plan ahead for the challenges that will face the next government.

"Much clearer and more joined-up leadership ahead of the challenges coming in 2015 could provide the permission and support required, but currently the message is weak and confused."

'Yes Minister', not 'No Minister'

Despite some departments leading genuinely transformational change programmes, most executive teams are struggling to engage ministers beyond immediate priorities. Far from being obstructive, as is often portrayed, civil servants have "willingly taken on extreme risk", the report says. Indeed, since 2010, no permanent secretary has requested a letter of direction to proceed from ministers.

A weakness in Whitehall's corporate leadership and the fragmented centre is an historic problem and one of the underlying causes of the lack of progress on the civil service reform plan. Given this background, even more effort will be needed by the three leaders to plan properly and work across departmental silos.

Treasury and prime minister are crucial to success

"When the Treasury gets behind or at least signals its permission for a reform, the effect can be extremely powerful." The Treasury is a crucial player in the success of Whitehall reform, as case studies, also published today, show.

However the Treasury is currently the "missing leader" in reform efforts in Whitehall. "Major improvements will only take place if reforms are seen as a top priority, not as is currently the case - squeezed in the margins".

Politicians also play a crucial role in driving reforms. As the report states: "Almost all of the more successful reforms of the last 50 years had significant sponsorship or active support from the prime minister". While the minister for the Cabinet Office has pushed energetically to bring about much-needed reform, the prime minister's private support for reform lacks visibility across Whitehall, making it difficult to drive the Whitehall reform agenda.

Senior fellow at the Institute for Government and co-author of the report, Peter Thomas said: "Far from being a broken institution, the civil service has taken on unprecedented cuts and a radical reform programme. It more often says 'yes', not 'no' minister, even when the stakes are high.

"There have been successes and some notable failures and many of the cuts happened without the analysis of capability to deliver. As the pace of reform escalates and the easier savings have gone, a far more concerted leadership effort is required from the political side, the Head of the civil service, cabinet secretary and permanent secretary to the Treasury to ensure that Whitehall doesn't fall flat on its face after 2015."

Recommendations include:

  • More visible involvement from the prime minister.
  • Stronger and more visible corporate leadership from the Treasury's permanent secretary is essential to success, working alongside the Head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary as a recognisable triumvirate leading reform efforts and preparing for 2015 cuts.
  • Changing civil service board membership and strengthening its ability to support corporate leadership at the centre.
  • Cabinet Office and Treasury leadership to seek and obtain approval from ministers to plan for the years from 2015 onwards, while continuing to deliver on current reforms.
  • Dedicated team planning ahead for how best to support the next government.

Source: Institute for Government

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