British civil service is world leader, says top civil servant

By on 28/09/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Sir Jeremy Heywood is to step down to concentrate on recovery from cancer

The British civil service is world leader in behavioural insights and evidence-based policy, its most senior civil servant has claimed.

Speaking at an event in London last week, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood said that “I think, although I can’t prove this, we are the best at behavioural insights; I think we’re the best at applying evidence – we’ve one of the most controlled trials in the what works; centres that have been set up all over the place; we’ve thought more about well being policies than others; and I think we’re doing more on horizon scanning than most.”

He added: “We have spent a lot of time in the last five years really focusing on how we can use transparency, payment by results contracts and social enterprise, nudge and behavioural insights, and evidence to make the British civil service the most innovative thinkers about policy anywhere in the world.”

While he highlighted the need for governments, including his own, to learn from others, he said that from the few international congresses he or his colleagues attend, “we usually find that we’re significantly net exporters of ideas than importers.”

Several senior government figures, including Heywood, have previously described the British civil service as the “best in the world”.

However, the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGIs) this year ranked the UK eighth in ‘executive capacity’, behind Finland, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, the US and Canada, but ahead of France and Germany.

Heywood told the event that the SGIs are “one of the only two benchmarks that exist” and that “according to them we’re not anywhere near the best civil service in the world.”

But, he added that the measures of effectiveness used by Bertelsmann are “very flawed.”

The organisation, he said, “doesn’t have anything on transparency, has nothing on efficiency, nothing on innovation – things which we regard as absolutely fundamental to whether or not we’re effective or not are not even measured.”

Asked how the IfG could improve its work, Heywood said that he would welcome a new global benchmarking initiative, adding that he is “perfectly prepared [to accept] in all humility that we’re only the eighth-best civil service in the world if I actually believed the measures.”

He also said that “finding specific things that other countries are doing” well would be helpful too.


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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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