Civil Service too risk averse at a micro level

 Faced with big challenges, the Civil Service thought small thoughts.  [Tony Blair, memoirs]

A report by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee has warned that the Coalition Government needs a more transparent and flexible Civil Service when it comes to commissioning public services from charities, social enterprises, mutuals and private companies.

The Committee’s report says the Civil Service needs to transfer power out of Whitehall and into communities and as a result fundamentally change the way it works.

It says the challenge of this new role will be compounded by the need to meet sizeable reductions in administrative budgets set out in the 2010 Spending Review.

Its conclusions are that while the Government seeks to embrace change, it has failed to recognise the scale of reform required or to set out the change programme required to achieve this reform. It says there is a reluctance to produce what they see as the latest in a long line of reform initiatives in Whitehall. This antipathy to a plan for reform fails to take note of the critical factors for success in Civil Service reform initiatives and wider corporate change programmes: coordination from the centre and strong political leadership. As a result, it warns, key policies like the ‘Big Society’ agenda and decentralisation will fail.

The Committee says: “We have recommended that 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. Such a change programme would enable real change in Whitehall and avoid the fate of previous unsuccessful reform initiatives.

“Such a change programme must also include proposals for the Civil Service to retain and to develop the new skill sets required to meet the demands of the Big Society policy agenda, and to address long-running concerns about the decline in specialist expertise in Whitehall, the failure to innovate and to take risks, and the failure to work across departmental silos. Such a plan is required to combat inertia and deliver government policies where Ministers and departments may otherwise be unwilling or unable to drive change.

“To reflect the changing role of the Civil Service, we have also recommended that the Government should consider the development of a new Haldane model of accountability which can sustain localism and decentralisation; or they must explain how the existing model remains relevant. The new realities of devolving power out of Whitehall to local government and elsewhere should be codified in the Civil Service governance structures.

“Ministers seem to believe that change will just happen. It is essential that the Cabinet Office take leadership of the reforms and coordinate the efforts in individual departments and across Whitehall as a whole. The scale of the challenges faced by the Civil Service calls for the establishment of a world class centre of Government, headed by someone with the authority to insist on delivery across Whitehall.”

In particular, the report says the main change of task, which will affect many but not all departments, will be an increase in commissioning and contracting. More onerous and time-consuming, however, will be monitoring the contracting process and dealing with problems and complaints arising.

The report says Whitehall has traditionally performed three core roles: policy advice, the management of public services, and the supervision of public bodies. If the Civil Service is to connect with Ministers’ ambitions for public service reform a fourth capability will need to be added to this trio: the ability to engage with groups from the voluntary and private sectors through the contracting and commissioning process. Every government department must focus on developing this fourth capability, and the Cabinet Office must ensure that this is embedded in the Civil Service change programme across government.

The report explains why SMEs have made so few inroads into government work. 

It goes so far as to depict ministers as not understanding Civil Service inertia, which means they cannot come up with a plan to do anything about it. Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, described a paradoxical situation where Government took huge risks at a macro level, but at a micro level tended to be very risk averse and hostile to innovation.

He added, “You do not often hear of someone’s career suffering because they preside over an inefficient status quo, but try something new that does not work and that can blot your copybook bigtime.”

 An example of one SME’s innovative ideas

One response to “Civil Service too risk averse at a micro level

  1. One of the biggest challenges in Government “IT” is who is responsible for being the intelligent buyer? I hear all the good words many reports written but action……? If the best cost saving technologies are to be used then the buyer needs to be aware of the art of the possible. My recent “rounds” in government Cabinet, Procurement, HMG Skunkworks and NAO trying to get taken seriously leads me to conclude that allocation of this
    responsibility has not been made? Recently Francis Maude said that open source would be encouraged where cost is “equal to, or less than, the lifetime costs of proprietary software”. But this assumes knowledge of underlying technology that does not exist in any structured way in Government? No one is going to “volunteer” to take this so the Minister is going to have to “point the finger” making it clear that this is a priority. We need a central resource with a structured and transparent process that is dynamic that sends the signal to vendors “we are in control” and if you can’t deliver what we want and is available then you will not get past first stage…. The latest PASC report is indeed worrying but Minister it’s on your desk to do something…..?


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