Blog Article

What is the UK civil service actually for?

Posted by Phil Kenmore

Phil Kenmore

Everyone is likely to have their own answer to this question and it’s not one I will attempt to answer in this blog, but it is certainly what the UK civil service should be asking right now, and here’s why.

The negotiations of the latest Treasury spending review are drawing to a close and we are facing up to yet more of the reality of the austerity required to rebalance our economy. The figures of the review are depressing, but more so when you consider that there is more – a lot more – still to come. £11.5bn of cuts in 2015-16 then an estimated £23bn in 2017-18 (Source: IFS). 

Of course this isn’t just about the civil service, but it is charged with implementing the resulting policies for Government as well as bearing the brunt of some of these cuts themselves. So can a generally conservative civil service cope with the stresses of change at such pace? I believe it can, but only if it re-focuses on what it is really there to do.

The Civil Service Capabilities Plan is a good start and is ambitious. But given the extent of the step-up in ability and thinking needed, it lacks bite in some elements that will make the difference. Such as: getting quicker at getting things done; managing performance more effectively; understanding the capabilities it has and aligning them with the new context.

Getting things done. The civil service is not renowned for its pace. Things are getting better, but nevertheless structures, roles and accountabilities across the senior civil service remain to be properly aligned with the change agenda. Too few have enough clarity of what’s required from them and not many are focused across departments to deliver complex, cross-government agendas – such as reforming public health. Until roles and structures are organised to be more focused on outcomes and less in silos – not enough progress will be made to effect change across government.

Managing performance. Greater clarity also requires more effective and focused performance management. For example, New Zealand has a performance management process that stimulates and rewards interagency collaboration – and also rewards desired behaviours. Unless the processes of the UK senior civil service are aligned with a significant change agenda across government, and applied, the result will be too little change.

Understanding capabilities. Finally, the Capabilities Plan talks about buying, borrowing or building capability. But is enough known about the capability already in the system? There needs to be a single, planful and comprehensive review of capability across all areas in order to make the best existing capability – to put it where it’s most needed – as well as filling gaps.

The civil service is making change, and beginning to move in the right direction. But the sheer pace and scale of change still required means that it needs to question what it is for, in order to give it the impetus and direction to be fit for our future.


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1 Comment

  1. Kamesh Chivukula

    Kamesh Chivukula

    May 7, 2014 at 7:44 am

    I beg to differ with Phil when he questions the Civil Servant’s wisdom of bringing about change incrementally rather than radically. Civil Service is given the responsibility to transform government policy into reality. The policies of the government may not exactly be ideal. SO the Service typically looks into every conceivable aspect of the policy before embarking on a course of action, which would result in a desired outcome. There is always the tendency among modern day management thinkers to look upon national problems through the prism of management expertise, which is flawed in my humble opinion. A country’s Civil Service does not simply latch on to the optimal course of action to come to a desired outcome, rather it evaluates many ideas and then chooses a course of action which benefits the majority stakeholders with minimum dissonance. The Service shoulders the burden of carrying the nation on its shoulders for time eternity and not for the next 5-10 years.

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