If the government is serious about civil service reform, it should act now

Positive change or civil servant bashing? We need more of the first and less of the latter

A myth is taking hold – encouraged through some parts of the media – that the civil service is one of the least reformed parts of the British state.

So, it may be timely to recall that only six months ago, in June 2012, the government launched its blueprint for civil service reform, and promised more detail about how this would be implemented by the end of the year.

For many civil servants, 2012 was characterised by uncertainty. Jobs continued to disappear, sometimes along with entire organisations, such as the Forensic Science Service. Specialist skills have been hollowed out in many areas.

More cuts are to follow and, alongside this, a prolonged period of pay restraint appears to have become policy by stealth. At the same time, we are witnessing increasingly vocal criticism by ministers and their advisers of alleged curmudgeonly behaviour by civil servants.

Is the government’s positive reforming zeal running into the sand, just as many previous such plans have done? It seems instead to be resorting to a concerted campaign of civil servant bashing, playing on stereotypes that only bear passing resemblance to the work done by the majority, who in fact never come near Whitehall.

If the government is serious about wanting to reform the civil service, there are several actions it could take immediately to show it means what it says.

The first step would be to drive a concerted effort to improve the labour market information available to government employers and use it for workforce planning purposes, in the way that good private sector employers and sector skills councils already do.

Secondly, a skills register needs drawing up to identify where expert capacity resides, either so that it can be deployed across departments or, where there are gaps, proactive and timely work undertaken to develop such capacity. The emphasis should be on professional skills, not organisational silos.

To complement the first two actions, the government urgently needs a positive action programme to expand the proportion of senior civil servants with a technical professional background. This would help enhance the capacity to deal with the key challenges facing government, dilute entrenched cultures and hierarchies, and provide a visible wider signal that these professional skills are valued and an asset to career progression.

For people starting out on their careers, government should invest in a civil service wide science and engineering apprenticeship programme that includes higher-level apprentices.

At the same time ministers must break the mould of the annual Treasury pay remit guidance to set out milestones in a longer-term pay strategy that will fairly reward and retain essential skills.

Finally, the government needs to promote and celebrate the essential work that civil servants do well in all functions and areas of the country, in order to build public awareness and positively influence the career choices of talented young people.

Nobody would argue that the civil service is perfect, but it is much easier to criticise it than to work constructively with the many thousands of dedicated professionals within the service, who against the odds retain a strong public service ethos.

Politicising the civil service may attract ministers in the short-term, but it won’t strengthen it. There is a world of difference between a coherent and sustainable reform programme and a series of changes implemented piecemeal in response to political pressures of the day.

So far, we’ve seen a lot of the latter and not much of the former. Francis Maude should rise to the challenge.

Sue Ferns is director of communications and research at the Prospect union

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