01 July 2009

Yes, Minister

Written by Published in Issue 16 - Wisdom Read 3079 times

Much classic British comedy has been inspired by the faithful civil servant, juggling the whims of some upstart new minister. Yet there is truth in this stereotype. A new culture of government could do with being ushered in, and soon


What do Britain’s legions of civil servants do, all 520,000 of them? Ostensibly they steer the public services delivery boat, furiously rowed by the leviathan public sector, which at 42% of GDP and climbing, is by far the biggest area of our economy.

This is a delivery job par excellence but, for some senior civil servants, a job in delivery and execution addressing the How? questions is as welcome as a stint in the salt mines. They prefer to go off-piste and ponder the more academically indulgent What? and Why?, in elegantly scripted policy papers. Not very useful, particularly given the surfeit of minister-appointed special advisers, or Spads, operating outside of the Civil Service. Spads bypass the internal hierarchy and, in effect, nibble away at civil servants’ monopoly on policy advice, which they surely don’t like, and hint at a need for senior civil servants either to reinvent themselves or face redundancy.

The vast majority of senior civil servants are not incompetent. Far from it – they have been spawned by the best schools and universities in the land, and as such, they are the public sector’s elite – but bureaucracy begets bureaucracy, and UK Plc is not getting the best out of some of these talented individuals.

Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture. One can think of government as the engine of policy development, the gearbox being the interface between ministers and permanent secretaries. The Civil Service is the drive shaft that delivers power to the wheels, the service-delivering public sector. Where the tyres meet the road is the interface between the vehicle of government and the citizens.

Progress depends upon how power is delivered. Pick the wrong gear via a poor relationship between ministers and permanent secretaries, and the engine stalls. Fail to take account of the road conditions – citizens’ expectations of public services – and the tyres will not grip.

The Government’s problem is that it’s actually quite remote from the service-receiving customer but it takes the rap when things go wrong. Ministers’ attempts to understand the fiendishly complex public sector, and then rectify the problems, leaves them as confused as a whirling dervish on speed. They then default to an array of external consultants (costing a staggering £7.2bn in the three years to 2007), which is culturally damaging.

With the consultancy spend now under threat, there’s an opportunity for civil servants to prove their worth and step up to the plate. But first, a salutary jolt to the system is required or, more specifically, a Civil Service cultural revolution to unleash the latent talent.

This is notoriously hard to achieve in practice, given the scale and diversity of the Civil Service, let alone the public sector as a whole. Cultural change, the constant process of re-evaluation, regrouping and letting go, requires a shift in the assumptions that guide behaviour, in respect of what each individual can and cannot do, and what is expected of them. Once assumptions and behaviour change at the top, individuals will develop a sense of empowerment and liberation, which will cascade down the hierarchy, with more discretion being given to those who have earned it.

But where to start? The key relationship that determines the effectiveness of policy implementation – and effective government – is between minister and permanent secretary. It is here that the seeds of Civil Service cultural change must be sown. A strong rapport is essential. Crucially, ministers should acknowledge to permanent secretaries that the public sector is very different to the private sector: it cannot choose its customer base and benefit from the 80:20 rule by ignoring the most demanding 20%. Ministers should also recognise that there are significant behavioural differences between the two sectors. Private-sector employees are motivated by the pursuit of mammon, with readily quantifiable targets, whereas civil servants are driven more by an ethos of public service.

The quid pro quo is that senior civil servants should embrace innovation and cross-departmental collaboration, currently constrained by the fear of failure and petty rivalry. They should recruit experts with a proven track record of major project delivery in the private sector, while standing on a ‘burning platform’. They must be prepared to pay meaningful bonuses to those who catalyse transformational, not incremental, change. While remaining astutely apolitical, permanent secretaries should be high-profile public figures, on a par with FTSE 100 company leaders, open to scrutiny; their opaque, mandarin image really belongs to another era.

When it comes to policy execution, civil servants’ attention should be focused on how to influence the behaviour of those being regulated – the citizens – because how they react to legislation will determine whether policies succeed or fail.

And, of course, ministers and permanent secretaries will do well not to forget the tyranny of the media, which focuses on negative stories and feeds in the trough of the aggrieved, usually found in the last 20% of the ‘customer experience’. But perhaps the most dramatic step the Civil Service could take would be to overcome its Canute-like stance, and recognise reality by acknowledging that it needs to shrink dramatically to be more effective. It needs to do this before the next administration gets there first, impelled as much by economic reality as by political philosophy.

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