The Civil Service Reform Plan – Mostly Old Wine in Very Old, but relabelled, Bottles.


The Civil Service Reform Plan announced yesterday mostly rehashes old solutions, some sensible, others of dubious worth – but mostly renames stuff and proclaims it as if it was ‘new’. The cry of ‘cultural change’, for example, towards greater managerial responsibility and accountability has been repeated in Whitehall at least since Rayner and FMI, if not Fulton. If it still hasn’t happened after 5 decades (depending on where you count from) it raises rather fundamental issues, surely?

The Plan ignores history almost completely and whilst supporting ‘evidence-based’ decisions provides no real evidence for either things that have been scrapped or things it wants to do.

The incoming Government, for example, closed both the Delivery Unit and the Strategy Unit. One is already back, only now its called the Implementation Unit – but it sounds remarkably like its predecessor. And by Autumn 2012 we will be told how Government will “strengthen its strategic thinking and horizon scanning.” Isn’t that what the Strategy Unit did? Watch that space. But also note – no assessment of what worked, and didn’t, with PMDU and the SU and how and why things might now be done differently.

Similarly Professional Skills for Government has apparently passed it’s sell by date, but no explanation is offered as to why. As for the “new” competence based frameworks for assessing individuals performance, how very 1990s. We’ve been there, done that and the t-shirt has disintegrated its so old. Not that that is necessarily a reason for not trying again, but without any assessment of what worked, and didn’t, in previous iterations?

The Plan introduces some new ideas – especially around digital services – which are positive and others, such as more Ministerial control over senior appointments, that are positively dangerous.

The latter sounds rather like we’re moving towards a mixture of Australian and New Zealand solutions: Australia has Ministries stuffed with people appointed by Ministers (some 400 or more of them) whilst NZ has a contractual relationship between Ministers and Perm Secs which is specifically mentioned, positively, in the Plan.

One positive element of the Plan is the emphasis on getting ‘implementation’ issues and people into the policy-making process. This belated, but welcome, realisation that ‘implementation matters’ is something I noted back in January and it is progress of sorts. This government has had its fair share of “policy [that] gets announced before implementation has been fully thought through” (p18) – Child Benefit anyone?

Most crucially the whole Plan focusses far too much on individual Civil Servants – their development and performance – and says almost nothing about organisational and systemic performance. The vapid section on Management Information could have been written by Micheal Heseltine in the 1980s (remember MINIS?). This section is most notable for its studious avoidance on any mention of words like “performance”, “delivery” or even their own Departmental Business Plans.

And this is the great gaping hole in the paper – Departmental Business Plans. If they mean anything (and we must presume they do as Ministers tell us so) why are they not mentioned, let alone made the central lever and driver for change? They contain the priorities, targets, milestones and objectives that are mentioned here and there in the Plan, but for some reason they are ignored. Could it be that making DBPs central would look way too much like New Labour’s Spending Reviews and Public Service Agreements?

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Performance, Politics, Public Administration, Public Management, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Civil Service Reform Plan – Mostly Old Wine in Very Old, but relabelled, Bottles.

  1. David Ward says:

    I agree, there are all sorts of contradictions and hostages to fortune in the document. There have to be concerns about plans to reduce the number of policy officials and bring in advice from think tanks and private consultancies. I wrote more about this here, http://www.witteringward.com/tinkering-with-the-machine/

  2. Jon Talbot says:

    Avoiding sounding like Labour is one cause. The other is that the ‘Plan’ is essentially written off the top of someone’s head to reflect what Ministers think they know. History is redundant when you know things go wrong because the officials are rubbish and therefore Something Must Be Done. Some Civil Servants are not even eurosceptic: no wonder they are useless.

  3. Chris Wob says:

    You present some very interesting and significant points here. It is very typical of the government to be contradictory and suspiciously selective, which should not be as it is detrimental not only to the government but to its citizens.

  4. Pingback: This Wine Has Been Corked! The More Whitehall Changes, the More It Stays the Same | Whitehall Watch

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