New data highlights the need for reform, says UK civil service chief

By on 23/01/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Manzoni: civil service is trying to do too much (Image courtesy: Institute for Government).

Brexit increases the pressure on the UK civil service to reform its operations and processes, Civil Service Chief Executive John Manzoni said yesterday, in comments that revealed the difficulty of making plans when the government has not won Parliamentary support for its chosen exit deal.

Manzoni has consistently said that the civil service is “doing 30% too much to do it all well,” he noted. “And we’re certainly trying to do much if we try and add on Brexit. If I think through what’s important right now, right in front of us is delivering a good Brexit. Take your pick as to what that looks like – but delivering a good one remains very important.”

Asked how long it will take to prepare for Brexit, Manzoni replied that he’d “steal Jon Thompson” – the HM Revenue & Customs Chief Executive, who last November repeatedly told the Treasury select committee that a two-year project to build new border controls can only begin when the government has determined which systems will be required. “From the moment we decide exactly what border we want, it will take several years to put it in place,” Manzoni said.

Projecting ahead

The civil service’s corporate head was speaking at the launch of Whitehall Monitor 2019: an annual analysis of the UK civil service’s size, shape and performance, produced by think tank the Institute for Government (IfG). Even including the potential two-year extension of the planned transition period, noted the IfG’s Head of Data and Transparency Gavin Freeguard, the four-year timescale for delivery is far shorter than for many much smaller government projects – with the Olympics, automatic pensions enrolment and Universal Credit benefits reforms all taking over ten years.

The Whitehall Monitor also reveals a steady slide in delivery confidence over government’s major projects, which are assessed on a ‘traffic light’ system by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. Excluding Brexit-related projects, Freeguard said, the proportion awarded a green or amber/green rating has fallen from nearly half to about a fifth since 2013, whilst those given red or amber/red scores has grown from less than 20% to 36%.

Picking out a selection of the 100+ metrics in the Monitor, Freeguard highlighted the extraordinary rate of ministerial resignations under PM Theresa May. Tony Blair saw 29 ministers resign during his 10-year premiership, he pointed out, and Margaret Thatcher lost 24 in 11.5 years. But 21 ministers have quit since the 2017 general election, less than two years ago.

“Ministerial turnover can disrupt the passage of legislation, the delivery of policies and the conduct of government,” the report says; and Freeguard pointed out that the government has only passed five of the Acts required for Brexit, suggesting “quite a legislative rush over the next weeks and months.”

Accelerate, don’t displace

Freeguard: ministerial turnover rates disrupting policy delivery (Image courtesy: Institute for Government).

The report’s data, said Manzoni, emphasises the need for “many of the changes that we’ve been attempting to introduce: the implementation of more collaborative working; the cross-cutting structures; the functions and professionalisation. All of those things come to the fore in the current context, because Brexit is one of those events that is a complex policy problem and a delivery problem to a set timeframe, and we have to bring all that together.”

Given how “thinly spread” the civil service is, he argued, it’s essential that the pressures created by Brexit “accelerate those changes as opposed to displacing them, as quite frankly those changes are absolutely required to deliver a successful Brexit.”

Decisions will also have to be made over prioritisation and what is “moved to the right” on the timeline, he added. “How do we balance what is pressing and urgent, and make some space for the other things that are happening?”

Laying down career paths

To build the skills it needs, said Manzoni, the civil service is creating career paths through government – particularly around the specialist professions. “The next generation of civil service leaders, I believe, will have had a different career path from the ones we see today,” he said. But this is a work in progress, demanding “quite a lot of rewiring of the structures so that a young civil servant can come in and build a career.”

Many of those future leaders, he added, may have spent periods outside the civil service. “We should be absolutely fine with people going out for a bit, because I know they’ll come back,” he said. “That’s how the world works, it’s what the outside world looks like – but it’s not what the civil service looks like.”

As the specialist functions expand their role in developing and managing civil servants, said Manzoni, the emergence of a “matrix structure” built around them will need to be reconciled with the traditional, vertical organisation of the departments. “One of the evolutions that Mark [Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary] and I are discussing is how do we reflect in the governance structures of the civil service itself the fact that we have now have a matrix structure across the civil service,” he concluded. “We haven’t actually changed the structures of the civil service to reflect that matrix structure, to the point of putting functional leads on an accountable board” – one that would combine departmental and functional leaders.

John Manzoni will be speaking on 28 February at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2019 event: an international conference on civil service innovation, run in association with the Cabinet Office. The event is free of charge to public servants from around the world: more details at

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.


  1. Chris says:

    Good luck bringing specialists back in given current pay and rewards. Likewise a matrix structure given how pay is tied to vertical position.

  2. John Wright says:

    Since the GFC in 2008 successive governments have used austerity measures as the excuse for reducing the size of department budgets by 20-25% in every spending round (4 years). This has been achieved by drastic cuts in both the numbers of civil servants and their terms of conditions including pay, leave, pension entitlements etc. Tier 1 & 2 positions in departments were filled in many instances by individuals on fixed term contracts on double the senior civil service rates for the roles. If the post was filled internally the civil servant was awarded a paltry 6% pay increase…. no wonder so many left public service. And now the Head of the Civil Service is saying how important that civil servants are in delivering Brexit and core services and that we need more to deliver government priorities…….where was all this concern and support over the last 10 years..,, And people don’t want to work in the public service – go figure….shameful leadership….lions led by donkeys comes to mind….

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