Change in Government: the agenda for leadership - Public Administration Committee Contents

4  A coherent plan for Civil Service change?

51.  Given the scale and nature of the changes to the Civil Service required we looked for evidence of a coherent change programme for reform, or evidence of coherence between individual and separate departmental change programmes and cross-Whitehall central reform initiatives (such as the Efficiency and Reform Group). At the heart of our Inquiry was the question of whether the Government have fully set out a coherent plan for reform.

52.   Following the General Election in May 2010, the Programme for Government promised to "improve the Civil Service, and make it easier to reward the best civil servants and remove the least effective."[86] The main focus of the Government's approach so far has been to increase efficiency, most notably through the establishment of the Efficiency and Reform Group which is tasked with helping departments to make the efficiency savings set out in this Government's first Budget and the commitments in the 2010 Spending Review. This approach has been characterised by the Minister as the "loose-tight balance" where policy is being devolved to the local front line but where some of the corporate aspects of government, on property, procurement, IT are subject to a more centralised approach in order to achieve efficiency savings.[87]

53.   Beyond increasing efficiency in the Civil Service, early in the life of the new administration both the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office set out the need for "a new chapter of reform" to create a Civil Service in 2020 that would be:

Smaller and more strategic, focusing on the core activities the Service needs to perform in order to deliver quality and value for money public services

Modern and flexible

High performing, with the professional skills to drive efficiency and performance

Flatter, less hierarchical, and more encouraging of innovation

Able to deliver efficiently and effectively itself and through others.[88]

54.  To achieve this outcome, reform would focus on four specific areas:

An open and well managed Service, driving performance and value for money

A Service with a modern employee offer

A skilled and capable Service

A streamlined Service. [89]

The need for a clear change programme

55.  The plan for the 2020 Civil Service necessitates reform in Whitehall. What the Government has not done is to explain how this change will be brought about or how it has tasked the Civil Service with turning these objectives into reality. As Martin Stanley pointed out:

... neither the Prime Minister nor Mr Maude promised fundamental Civil Service reform, nor does the Government appear to have considered the need for such reform.[90]

Andrew Haldenby of Reform concurred:

... the Government have got a problem. They want to achieve the radical decentralisation of power that we are talking about. The last Government came to the conclusion that you have to reform Whitehall to do that, and this Government are not going to take that step. That is the problem.[91]

56.   As Julian McCrae told us, this leaves the Government without a strategy:

The big question at the moment, the bit that's missing from this puzzle, is what does the Civil Service look like in three or four years' time, which is the length of time that this will take? What's the blueprint that people can aim for, so they know whether they are on the right course?[92]

57.  Yet there is antipathy in Government to the idea of such a plan. Francis Maude rejected the idea of a central plan to reform the Civil Service. The Minister stated:

I think the point has been made that there has been a series of plans and blueprints and reports and White Papers over the years, but actually not all that much changes dramatically. The rhetoric has often outstripped the delivery. I am more interested in us doing stuff.[93]

58.  In his evidence to us Ian Watmore promised that:

... there is a White Paper coming out in the nearish future—I do not know the exact date—on public service reform, within which there will be aspects of Civil Service reform ...[94]

The Open Public Services White Paper was eventually published on 11 July 2011. The only explicit reference we can find to Civil Service reform is at page 51 where, after listing the key roles which central government will focus on, it states that opening up public services and wider decentralisation of power "has profound implications for the role of Whitehall in the future".[95] It goes on to say that the Government will consult on these core government roles particularly on the future shape of the policy, funding and regulatory functions in Whitehall and beyond.[96]

59.  We asked Mr Watmore whether this was the extent of commentary on civil service reform he envisaged would be in the White Paper in his response to us, and when the Government planned to consult about these core government roles.[97]

60.  The response was limited in detail. Mr Watmore said:

The White Paper recognised that the programme set out in the White Paper implied significant change for the future role of Whitehall and committed to a future consultation on core Government roles in future ...

Additionally we are considering as part of the Open Public Services listening exercise precisely how best to lead the subsequent implementation effort. When that is determined and agreed with Ministers we will let the Committee know of the details.[98]

61.  The Open Public Services White Paper offers only the most minimal recognition that the decentralisation agenda inevitably has a consequential and fundamental impact on the Civil Service. It does not contain detail on the "aspects of Civil Service reform" promised by Ian Watmore in his evidence to us in March 2011.[99] Moreover, its commitment to consult on the future shape of the policy, funding and regulatory functions in Whitehall suggests a lack of urgency in Government which is without a coherent change agenda or set of steps that would constitute a comprehensive plan. In short, the Government has not got a change programme: Ministers just want change to happen: but without a plan, change will be defeated by inertia.

Key elements of a reform plan

62.  The Civil Service reforms required should be understood in their totality even if the individual elements are not implemented as a single, major change programme. Other major reforms by successive governments that attempted to alter the role and structure of the Civil Service included both single wholesale reform projects and the process of continual improvement and targeted efforts to change specific areas. We consider that a number of key factors for success specifically relevant to large-scale Civil Service reform are vital to the success of change programmes in Whitehall:

a)  Clear objectives: there must be a clear understanding of both what the Civil Service is being transformed from and to, as well as the nature of the change process itself. This requires both a coherent idea of the ultimate outcome, but also how clarity on how to ensure coordination of the reform programme and how to communicate that throughout the process.

b)  Scope: The appropriate scope for the reforms must be established at the outset; with focused terms of reference, but also wide enough to be able to explore all necessary issues.

c)  Senior buy-in: A political belief that reform is needed must be matched by the same belief within the Civil Service and ministers, and both should be clear on their roles in delivering it. Sustained political support and engagement from all ministers is crucial.

d)  Central coordination: Either the Cabinet Office or reform units such as the Efficiency and Reform Group must drive the change programme. This requires good quality leadership of such units and a method of working which ensures collaboration with departments, and Prime Ministerial commitment.

e)  Timescales: There must be a clear timetable with clear milestones to achieve optimal impact and to ensure political support is sustained. The lifespan of the change programme should include the time taken for reforms to become embedded. Two to three years is likely to be the most effective; beyond this period reform bodies may experience mission creep. [100]

63.  Measured against the factors for a successful change programme, the Government's approach to Civil Service reform currently falls short. There is no clear or coherent set of objectives, nor have Ministers shown a commitment to a dynamic strategic problem solving approach to change. The Cabinet Office have signalled their commitment to change the culture of Whitehall, but we have not yet found sufficient evidence to imply a coherent change programme. In the absence of leadership from the Cabinet Office, departments are carrying out their individual programmes with limited coordination and mixed levels of success. Without clear leadership or coordination from the centre, setting out, in practical terms, how the reform objectives are to be achieved, the Government's reforms will fail.

64.  The Government has embarked on a course of reform which has fundamental implications for the future of the Civil Service, but the Government's approach lacks leadership. The Minister rejected the need for a central reform plan, preferring "doing stuff" instead.[101] We have no faith in such an approach. All the evidence makes clear that a coordinated change programme, including what a clear set of objectives will look like, is necessary to achieve the Government's objectives for the Civil Service. The Government's change agenda will fail without such a plan. We recommend that, as part of the consultation exercise it has promised about the future role of Whitehall, the Government should produce a comprehensive change programme articulating clearly what it believes the Civil Service is for, how it must change and with a timetable of clear milestones.

65.  Successful reforms have key factors in common. We recommend that the Government should set out how it is sharing good practice from previous transformation programmes, in Whitehall and beyond, and ensuring that such lessons are applied.

86   HM Government, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010, p 27 Back

87   Q 159, 210 Back

88   "Francis Maude's speech to the Civil Service", Cabinet Office website, 8th July 2010,  Back

89   Ibid. Back

90   Ev w9 Back

91   Q 49 Back

92   Q 39 Back

93   Q 209 Back

94   Q 205 [Ian Watmore] Back

95   HM Government, Open Public Services White Paper, Cm 8145, July 2011, p 51 Back

96   Ibid.  Back

97   Ev 71 Back

98   Ev 71 Back

99   Q 205 [Ian Watmore] Back

100   Ev 72 Back

101   Q 209 (Francis Maude). Back

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Prepared 22 September 2011