Ministers need to better understand the tension between urgency and realism in government if they want to deliver

By on 29/05/2023 | Updated on 30/05/2023
Frayed red rope against a black background. Tension.

Failures in government policy delivery are often blamed on civil servants. But, in the second of two articles for Global Government Forum, Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, says the real issue is a lack of scrutiny of the minister

‘The civil service is not up to scratch and lets the minister down’ is a longstanding – and outdated – Francis Maude drumbeat.

If, as anticipated, the ministers are not included in the forthcoming governance inquiry’s focus, it is simply one more nail in the coffin of the jewel of the nation – the Westminster civil service.

Now Maude is leading a review looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK civil service, focusing on leadership responsibility, autonomy and models of accountability. In a recent article, Maude said that Raab’s resignation raised important issues for the civil service.

In particular, he said that there was a need for “a much more robust culture, with less groupthink, more rugged disagreement, and the confidence to both offer challenge and to accept it” across government.

It seems clear Maude’s review will therefore likely focus on the civil service’s attempts to maintain impartiality and continuity. But are these the right tensions to explore if the minister himself is not being placed under the same excruciating spotlight?

Watch more: Civil service relations with ministers – what’s gone wrong, and how to fix it

Last week in Global Government Forum, I set out the findings of my own inquiry ‘Is Government Fit for Purpose?,’ submitted to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2018, which suggests the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Our work concluded, in part, that no meaningful study into the function and contribution of the civil service is complete without a careful examination of the minister’s leadership capabilities.

Indeed, by taking this singular point into account the ‘Is Government Fit for Purpose?’ inquiry uncovered deep-set tension between the secretary of state and senior official, the departmental permanent secretary, that can best be described as ‘urgency vs realism’ and a matter that cannot be avoided.

The minister’s evident exposure demands distinct urgency to meet publicly-announced promises and commitments. Civil servants provide balance by realistically finding ways for policy to be delivered effectively. ‘What works’ demands their full attention, bearing in mind the wide spread of interests facing the minister and the need to engage across a myriad of misalignments.

How to focus on delivery

In one sense, this is all business as usual but government and complex private and public service entities are littered with good policies gone wrong.

Strategy literature repeatedly confirms that 20% of effort should concentrate on policy creation, while the remaining 80% must focus on policy delivery.

However, the fracturing that occurs in policy delivery ultimately comes down to leadership not being sufficiently attentive to the reality of engaging and building trust with multiple interests and, as a result, displaying poor understanding of stakeholder needs.

For policy delivery to work, a sense of partnership between the secretary of state and the permanent secretary is necessary. The investigation of evidence coupled with robust conversation enables policy to be more smartly delivered and the process of telling truth to power occurs naturally.

My own study highlighted that a sharing mindset was minimal among ministers. Instead, insensitivity to the ‘urgency vs realism’ tension was expressed as frustration by minsters who repeatedly felt they were being blocked in their ambitions.

Read more: UK civil service review to call for more ‘robust culture’ after Raab resignation

Ministerial capacity is key

But a minority of ministers displayed a more insightful understanding. Their personal sensitivity toward the civil servant was no better or worse than the majority of their colleagues, but their insistence on making convincing arguments supported by sound evidence helped control their instinct for urgency. As a result, the minister became more open to alternative suggestions and civil servants thrived in these conditions.

Civil servants continue to face the arduous task of somehow working around their ministers while manoeuvring through the misalignments that frequently upset policy delivery.

To achieve this, civil servants have developed a dual capacity for thoughtful deliberation and personal sensitivity. They scan the environment by harnessing appropriate evidence that helps them better appreciate the nature of internal and external discordance.

This action is testimony to their capacity for unravelling complexity, but it is also important to note that presenting a compelling argument for the best policy advice would be difficult without being finely tuned to the minister’s ‘wavelength.’

With such evident ability the question arises: Why does the government entertain the persistent undermining of its senior management by a small cluster of leaders?

In any other entity the concerns being raised by Francis Maude would have ministers examined to establish whether their hubris was inducing unwelcome negativities.

Ultimately the Francis Maude perspective of the minister as a victim is unacceptable. It’s true that ministers are hardworking, stretched and likely too accountable in many instances.

However, any kind of meaningful external scrutiny needs to focus on whether the minister’s capacity to lead is up to standard, before switching to consider how the machinery of government is at fault. Without a better appreciation of the ‘urgency vs realism’ tension then any sense of duty and service we have come to expect from our civil service will dissipate, leaving the state open and vulnerable.

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About Andrew Kakabadse

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

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