COVID shines spotlight on how UK civil service must change, says Cabinet Office non-exec

By on 20/07/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Michael Gove appointed Simone Finn as a non-executive director to the UK Cabinet Office in May. (Photo courtesy: Chatham House via Flickr).

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has shown some of the very best of the UK civil service but has also “highlighted some serious shortcomings and some real problems,” according to Baroness Simone Finn.

Finn, who was appointed as one of four new non-executive directors to the UK Cabinet Office by minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove in May, said that the pandemic has provided “a unique opportunity to force the pace” of change within the civil service.

She made the comments during an online event, Civil service reform: this time is different, hosted by London-based think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) on Monday.

Making clear she was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Cabinet Office, Finn said her view was that “too often the civil service has a less than perfect record of implementation and now we’re facing huge challenges we really need to have the people with the right capabilities and skills to deliver better services”.  

This alongside “eye-watering” levels of national debt mean that civil service reform is firmly on the political agenda “because it simply has to be now,” Finn said. “Things can’t go on as before – there can’t be these endless meetings, endless process with nothing happening”.

She noted that the civil service can be “hostile” to innovation. “This risk averse culture has got to transfer somehow to a can-do culture and that’s going to be absolutely vital to empower people.” She added that civil servants “need to be able to do things and to fail”.

Need to harness data across government

Finn told the online audience she would like to see data harnessed across government but that this was often resisted by both ministers and officials. Harnessing data and associated technology would mean having a stronger central mandate for doing so, she said.

Finn added that she would also like to give operational staff “greater parity of esteem with policy people”.

A long-standing ally of Gove, Finn previously worked as a special adviser to then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude during the 2010-15 coalition government and was instrumental in designing reforms and cutting civil service pension schemes.

Her comments follow the launch of the government’s prospectus for civil service reform last week, and echo those made by Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm. On 15 July, he said the combination of the pandemic, Brexit, ‘levelling up’, and ‘net zero’ were driving a need for major reforms in the UK civil service.

Dispersing policy staff around the country

During the IfG event, Finn said the civil service should seek to disperse policy staff around the country. Sue Owen, former permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who was on the panel with Finn, said that while access to ministers in London had prevented such moves in the past, the coronavirus pandemic had shown how this would be entirely possible.  

Owen pointed out that the creation of a smaller civil service “or certainly a smaller policy making or expert policy making function” may actually cost more in the short term due to the high cost of bringing in a variety of experience, alongside the need to pay people off. 

“I think if there is going to be very radical change ahead, along the Michael Gove lines, there has to be an acceptance that it could involve a one-off quite big slug of money to effect that,” she said.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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