Civil service reform plan has missed chance for radical change

Plan fails to address departmental silos, according to experts at Commons committee inquiry on future of the civil service

The government’s civil service reform plan has failed to attack entrenched departmental silos within Whitehall and has missed the chance for radical structure change, according to experts.

In the first, often acid-tongued evidence session of the influential Commons public administration select committee’s inquiry into the future of the civil service, experts and academics lined up to criticise the government’s plans, published in June 2012, to reform the civil service and overhaul the skills and capabilities of the service.

“It’s only a fragment of the picture. It needs context, background and synthesis and a proper discussion. It has the feel of being written at speed with a great deal of frustration and anger,” said Lord Hennessy, professor at Queen Mary, University of London, at the hearing, chaired by MP Bernard Jenkin.

Hennessy highlighted underperformance and lack of ministerial leadership as two of the biggest problems facing the civil service. “It has always attracted a remarkable array of gifted people, but somehow it’s always less than the sum of its parts,” he said, adding that leadership at the top of Whitehall departments – a combination of “essentially transient ministers and career life-service civil servants” – was in trouble. In December 2012, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced plans to give ministers greater say over the appointment of permanent secretaries.

Hennessy said the civil service reform plan reflectedwhat he called the particular “scratchiness” of relationships between ministers and permanent secretaries and a lack of confidence on the part of the government. He praised self-confident ministers whose self-confident civil servants “don’t spare them anything”.

Patrick Diamond, a former special adviser in the previous government and now a research fellow at Manchester University, told MPs that the reform plan had missed an opportunity for radical change in Whitehall structures. Asked whether it would be more desirable for Whitehall to operate as a unified service, Diamond said the government should move beyond departmentalism and encourage greater collaboration. “In Scotland there has been a very productive attempt to have a more outcome-focused approach,” he said, adding that Whitehall could have benefited from a more radical approach to change. In November 2012, Maude ruled out further departmental reorganisation, and said the answer to departmentalism was culture change and greater movement of people around Whitehall posts.

Jenkin said there had been loss of corporate memory and expertise at the top of government departments, particularly at the Ministry of Defence, where, he said the present permanent secretary, Jon Thompson, who has an accountancy background outside the civil service,does not strike me as the apostolic successor to Frank Cooper or Sir Michael Quinlan who were world renowned experts in their day”.

Professor Christopher Hood, of Oxford University, said there was no indication of how the success of the civil service reform plan would be measured.

Professor Matthew Flinders, University of Sheffield joined Diamond, Hood and Hennessy in the first evidence session. Sean Worth, of the Policy Exchange thinktank appeared with Peter Riddell, of the Institute for Government and Andrew Haldenby, director of the Reform thinktank in the second session on 8 January.

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