UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - CIVIL SERVANTS JOIN THE REAL WORLD.

UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - CIVIL SERVANTS JOIN THE REAL WORLD. - 'With locally negotiated pay, performance pay and appraisal much more focused on results, many middle-tier managers are positively relishing the potential new freedoms to lead policy developme

by Ian Johnston Deputy Principal, Sheffield Hallam University,companion of the IM and formerly a civil servant.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'With locally negotiated pay, performance pay and appraisal much more focused on results, many middle-tier managers are positively relishing the potential new freedoms to lead policy development or to gain real executive responsibility. The high proportion of in-house winners of market tests shows that the Civil Service can be rigorously efficient when it tries'.

The well worn joke about the EU's HQ at the Berlaymont in Brussels was to ask how many staff work there, and to get the reply, 'About 50%, I suppose.' Now that Whitehall is stripping out over 30% of its senior management layer, it seems reasonable to ask whether prior to this it was wasting 30% of its time.

At the very least there are now fewer staff to spend valuable time debating with each other in committees or reading each other's erudite minutes. But a deeper look reveals that the very nature of their jobs has been changing dramatically over the past 12 years since the Financial Management Initiative brought the first hint of professional managerialism to their tasks. Prior to this the way to the top was almost exclusively via personal performance in policy formulation and presentation of advice to ministers. Resource consumption was a matter for finance departments while staff motivation was largely a matter for personnel or welfare, if considered at all.

So what else has changed? Virtually everything except ministers' interests in policy presentation and short-term results. These interests are inevitable in an open and critical democracy, where the average ministerial tenure is only about 18 months.

Most ministers enter a department knowing nothing about its business or policies, and possibly not even wanting that particular portfolio. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Gillian Shephard, now running the new Department for Education and Employment (DFEE), had enormous experience of education, careers and agriculture before entering Parliament and has since led, as she wanted, Employment, MAFF, Education and now DFEE.

Recent press reports that the Labour Party has recognised the need to train its front benches in the skills necessary for ministerial office are welcome and represent farsighted contingency planning. When plucked from the back benches, MPs of any party need all the skills they can muster to lead and give strategic direction to their departments, to plumb the limits of their power, to manage their own time and prioritise, to chair and contribute to committees, and to focus on their own ideas and manifesto commitments. In particular they need to find the time to form some impression at least of the impact of their policies in the real world, and to meet people not exclusively bound up in the dangerously hothouse atmosphere of Westminster.

After the 30% delayering, the very senior civil servants who remain will be freed to concentrate on strategy and on the management of policy development. Policy advice itself will be devolved to the next layer (grade 5 assistant secretaries and grade 7 principals). Implementation of policy is also led at this level increasingly in agencies or in quasi agencies still inside departments. With locally negotiated pay, performance pay and appraisal much more focused on results, many middle-tier managers are positively relishing the potential new freedoms to lead policy development or to gain real executive responsibility. The high proportion of in-house winners of market tests (around 70 to 80%) shows that the Civil Service can be competitive and rigorously efficient when it tries.

As in the private sector, delayering in the Civil Service - accompanied as it is by very significant re-engineering of roles - has the potential to produce a more efficient and effective organisation and more satisfying jobs for those that survive.

But there are also potential risks. The new system places much greater weight on ministers themselves co-ordinating policies. The clear-out of senior managers has taken with it thousands of years of experience. Will an incoming government with a flood of new ideas find enough capacity of the right quality for policy analysis and development?

The sheer pace of change may be too much, at least to revive morale among the battered battalions below. They have seen agencies, privatisation, market testing, contractorisation and now devolution and delayering, all in a confusing flurry. The Civil Service has shrunk by over 250,000 in the past 10 years or so. The cuts are now hitting the chiefs as well as the Indians, but some may wonder uneasily whether there will be any wigwams left.

Perhaps more seriously it is not clear how far devolution of responsibility for policy development could or should be taken in a democracy. The new Code of Practice requires and defends impartial advice. But how is the civil servant held responsible for the quality of policy advice? Who is to distinguish between advice that is poor and advice that is simply politically unpalatable? Ministers can be held democratically accountable for the decisions they take on policy advice.

But it is not always easy, as the Derek Lewis case in the prison service shows, to distinguish clearly between policy and its executive implementation. Indeed, it must be questionable whether the policy execution split at the top is itself wise, for how then can Whitehall and Westminster avoid becoming ivory towers. This whole issue of accountability is critical, because the general impression of civil servants is that even before devolution of policy, risk aversion predominated, perfect presentation and reams of defensive briefing having priority over objective, quantified evaluation of the effects of policy on the real world. Ministers must signal a priority for real world results otherwise presentation still risks distorting both policy and strategy.

None of these difficulties need sink the ship. We still have a civil service that is the envy of Europe and the US. Its professionalism, dedication and integrity are world-class. It is embracing change while keeping its values not only intact, but refreshed. There is much more emphasis on quality, on outcomes, on value for money and evaluation, on openness and communication, and on satisfying customers whether that means ministers or job-seekers. Enthusiasm, entrepreneurship and delivering results are increasingly valued. Perhaps most importantly the need to invest in developing the skills of civil servants and for them to encourage partnership with others is recognised.

Better skills, refreshed values, respect for customers and partners - all these will equip civil servants to deal with the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, help them preserve the democratic processes and continue to serve the nation well.

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