Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Suzy Walton (CSR 12)

Summary Statement

This paper, asserts that:

The Civil Service needs reform of the capacity of Civil Servants for strategic thinking.

Lessons can be learnt from a Cabinet Office programme of work entitled Strategic Futures that was engineered by Civil Servant Geoff Mulgan and led by this author when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

To deliver the business culture articulated in the reform plan, it may be wise to consider putting more Senior Civil Servants through the Chartered Director programme run by the Institute of Directors (IoD).

There is no magic bullet for consensus building on the way forward. Heed must be paid to recent difficult attempts at widespread reform.

Question 1: Is the Civil Service in need of radical reform?

1. Reform—yes. Any organisation can benefit from refreshing both its strategy and its key enabling factors (such as people) for delivery of that strategy. But is the Civil Service in need of radical reform. I don’t believe so.

2. The Civil Service is a business. The vision is a nation state that protects and provides for its citizens via public services that meet the needs of the population. The mission is the provision of protection and public services that are valued, affordable and flexible to changing needs. The values while not always articulated remain largely those of the inception of the Civil Service arising from the recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854.

3. But where the Civil Service fails as a business is in articulation of its strategy—the road map by which the mission is delivered and the vision is achieved. And it fails too in the lack of effective Key Performance Indicators by which to hold it to account for delivery. It fails not at the level of Departments where strategy and targets abound but at the HMG level.

4. Public problems are systemic problems. Issues such as obesity, teenage pregnancy, dangers of electronic information proliferation are not issues that sit within the clear boundaries of any one Department. The key strategic challenges that the Civil Service has to face as a business are largely inter-Departmental ones.

5. And reform is needed in order to better fit the Civil Service to respond to challenges that span Departments.

6. This is not new. And attempts to fix it have been made before. This is why this author asserts that reform is needed but it doesn’t need to be radical. Useful techniques have been tried and have been partially successful.

7. Under the labour government, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, a programme of work was created within the Cabinet Office. Called “Strategic Futures” and run by this author from within the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit this initiative attempted to make Whitehall more strategic. The architect was not—as many may believe, Tony Blair but Geoff Mulgan—a leading Senior Civil Servant, and it was delivered entirely by and to Civil Servants with very little interference of special advisors.

8. This programme ran for a number of years. It surveyed strategic capability of government Departments at the outset and finding room for improvement set about talking to all boards in Whitehall about the notion of big systemic challenges and how strategic planning and horizon scanning was needed to solve them. Strategic Futures advocated the creation of “futures” units within departments staffed by civil servants and outsiders, to engage in horizon scanning work and to inject the findings into policy—be it by way of more ambitious targets or articulation of risks.

9. Did Strategic Futures succeed and what can we learn from this programme for reform of the Civil Service?

10. Strategic Futures did largely succeed. Almost all Departments listened and at board level and almost all Departments created a futures unit. This author and Geoff Mulgan called the newly appointed strategy heads from Whitehall together every few weeks for information exchange—both in terms of risks that the Department was flagging up via its futures capacity and in terms of the process for deriving those risks and making policy-making more strategic.

11. Strategic Futures was able to change the way that strategy was viewed in government and brought about a much wider acceptance of the necessity to think long-term, think cross-Departmental and take calculated risks. It delivered not only direct challenge to Department but also had an educational role by debating specific challenges via seminars with published papers. However, it was not really able to change how Whitehall acted. Only how it thought.

12. So reform of the Civil Service could usefully call upon the lessons learned from this programme of work by seeking further means to not only educate Civil Servants on the value of being strategic and taking a joined-up long term view that is risk aware but not risk averse, but also by helping Civil Servants use this doctrine in policy-making.

13. So, yes the business needs reform. Civil Servants need to be empowered to act strategically. Thinking strategically is not enough. But the business has the capability to do this for it so nearly did before. Reform therefore does not need to be radical. Through existing recruitment, training and development programmes Civil Servants need to be encouraged to be strategic so that policy is no less comprehensive or consulted on but takes account of wide systemic issues, articulates risk without being strangled by it to deliver optimal services and security to the nation.

Question 2: Are the Government’s plans for reform, as outlined in the Civil Service Reform Plan and related documents, likely to lead to beneficial changes?

14. They are brave. The Prime Minister calls for more business like behaviour of Civil Servants—if so then training for business via business methodology must be the norm not the exception. There is a notable omission—the need to get more Senior Civil Servants accredited as Chartered Directors.

15. Chartered Director (this author became one immediately after leaving Whitehall) is considered to be the most significant business qualification at board level. It requires the director to demonstrate via examination and a portfolio of evidence, competence in around 40 areas of board level responsibility ranging from finance, strategy, risk, compliance, stakeholder management to HR, marketing and communications.

16. Approval was given in 1997 by Privy Council to the IoD to train and examine directors as Chartered Directors. While there is no guarantee that a qualification of this nature would allow the Civil Service to be the fast sleek entrepreneurial machine sought in the paper, this author by personal experience believes that the traditional offering of training for Senior Civil Servants does not, in the main, cover the same ground as the IoD’s Chartered Director training. This author left Whitehall in order to embark on a non-exec portfolio career on boards in various sectors. This qualification not only greatly facilitated that but had it been embarked on earlier, would have been of enormous benefit in discharging Senior Civil Servant duties.

Question 3: What is the best approach for achieving consensus on the future size, shape and functions of the Civil Service

17. This is a bigger reform programme than even the health reforms and so lessons must be learnt from that.

November 2012

Prepared 5th September 2013