A version of this article originally appeared in the Guardian
The government’s recent announcement on civil service reform does not come a moment too soon. The civil service as we know it is based on the 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan report and it is frankly remarkable that it has lasted so long. The world was very different then, with 16,000 civil servants, compared with 434,000 now. It is hardly surprising that a settlement designed to deal with a 19th century issues is creaking under 21st century demands.
Evidence of difficult relationships between the government and civil service emerges daily. Ministers are said to be complaining about the quality of advice from officials; Ian Watmore, one of the most senior civil servants, unexpectedly resigned; and there is significant unrest within Whitehall following leaks in the media about possible workforce reductions.
It is safe to say that the ancient division between policy and delivery is under significant pressure.
In response, the government’s reforms appear to be aimed at tackling the right – sizable – challenges. I’m pleased to see wide ranging references, including the need for: ‘a culture which is pacier, more innovative, less hierarchical and focused on outcomes not process’.
Specifically, a private sector approach to the appraisal of civil servants and tougher measures to deal with poor performance is advocated. These are steps in the right direction to the fundamental reform needed to achieve the dual goal of a better and more cost effective civil service.
Such reform will take time, effort and collaboration. One hopes that this is, as Francis Maude asserts, ‘a joint plan’ between politicians and civil servants - as a broken relationship would only hinder progress. Ideally reform needs to be decoupled from political goals and owned by the civil service to a considerable degree.
It is to be hoped that an austerity powered push will ensure the necessary steps to improving civil service productivity will actually be taken, having been announced.