By Tony Collins
The civil service reform plan, which was published yesterday, is disappointing. It is so consensual that it has nothing particularly punchy to offer. It reads like the report of a tennis club match in which the finalists were such good friends that neither wanted to win; and each surrendered alternate points until those watching drifted into the bar.
The reform plan has been approved by senior civil servants and even former Labour ministers. In the House of Commons yesterday Labour’s spokesmen reacted with indifference and unions too have said little.
One reason, perhaps, is that the plan is full of good intentions that promise further documents and consultations that are full of good intentions. In short there’s nothing for potential opponents to worry about.
On improving the delivery of major projects, the reform plan is vague to the point of being self-mocking. It proposes:
- Requiring greater testing and scrutiny of major projects by departmental boards and the [Cabinet Office's] Major Projects Authority before they move to full implementation;
- Regular publication of project progress and the production of an annual report on progress, scrutinised by the Departmental Board;
- Commencing training of all leaders of major projects through the Major Projects Leadership Academy by the end of 2014; and
- Significantly reducing the turnover of Senior Responsible Officers.
The phrase “significantly reducing” means nothing in practice; and does the promise of “regular publication of project progress reports” mean anything in practice, other than, perhaps, the publication of press releases on project progress written by the PR departments of HMRC, the DWP and the MoJ?.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude could have confronted permanent secretaries with an important policy change that required the civil service to publish independent Gateway review reports on the progress or otherwise of major IT and construction projects. Perhaps Maude has not done so because he wanted consensus. But he has probably ended up with a reform plan that nobody believes in and to which nobody objects.
The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority will do its best to stop IT-related project failures but it has limited control and civil service secrecy working against it. The reform plan changes none of this.
Doubtless the disasters will continue.