British MP calls for fundamental overhaul of civil service

By on 20/10/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the UK parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)

Successive attempts to reform the UK civil service have been only “piecemeal” and failed to tackle fundamental questions about its identity, purpose and structure, a senior Tory MP said yesterday.

Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), said that “we have inherited Victorian or Edwardian institutions that must adapt to confront the massive complexity that is the new normal. This requires a different kind of mental agility and adaptability, and a capacity for strategic thinking that some even suggest requires Whitehall to consider itself to be psychologically and organisationally on a kind of war-footing, in order to be able to engage quickly enough with complexity in the nation and its global context.”

Earlier this year PACAC announced a wide-ranging inquiry into the work of the UK civil service. In 2013, PACAC’s predecessor – the Public Administration Select Committee – called for the establishment of a parliamentary commission into the civil service, but the government rejected its recommendation.

Underlining the need for a further inquiry by PACAC, Jenkin said the civil service is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of today’s complex, fast-moving society.

Speaking at the Institute for Government think-tank, Jenkin acknowledged that Maude’s reforms were successful in addressing areas such as the digitisation of public services and central procurement. But he said that they fell short of the more fundamental changes needed.

“First, though many of the proposed changes were laudable, they did not amount to a comprehensive corporate change programme, because the approach was managerial, rather than strategic,” Jenkin said.

“Secondly, proposals intended to increase ministers’ control over permanent secretary appointments and their private offices gave rise to the fear that the Civil Service is being subject to… creeping politicisation.

“Thirdly, the approach failed to address people and leadership, and there was no coherent or comprehensive analysis of what the underlying problems arising from the culture of the civil service might be.”

Jenkin said the failure of successive attempts to reform the civil service has undermined Whitehall’s autonomy, leaving it increasingly at the mercy of Number 10 and political appointees in the Cabinet Office who “rain down new policies and initiatives” on departments.

Meanwhile, the role of permanent secretary as the principal policy adviser within departments has been “eclipsed”, he added.

Jenkin said a key focus of the PACAC inquiry will be on the culture within the civil service and on how it encourages rather than stifles individual initiative.

“What is it that wears down the idealism and enthusiasm of young civil service recruits over the years? What does the system inadvertently value and what does it tend to undervalue? What is it that makes officials wary of being too open, and too risk averse?” Jenkin asked.

Another focus would be on leadership, he added: “Who provides the necessary institutional leadership for the civil service to deliver government policy whilst remaining impartial? How can the SCS [senior civil service] be made into a more effective leadership group? And perhaps most important of all, who is responsible for governance of the civil service? Who defines the mission for the civil service? Who is the guardian of its aims and values? And who is responsible for ensuring that civil servants adopt the most effective attitudes and behaviours that will fulfil that mission according to those values?”

Jenkin acknowledged that the sort of reform he has in mind would be “really hard”, but said that he’s confident there is an “appetite for real change”.

“The challenges our nation faces are increasing in number, in complexity and in pace, but we can have a civil service that better draws upon both the best of its traditions and on the strengths of today’s people and society,” he concluded.

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See also:

UK reforms Fast Stream tests to broaden intake

UK select committee questions timetable for digital tax reforms

Officials must be free to challenge ‘group think’, says UK civil service chief

Civil servants must make their views heard, says former UK minister

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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