‘The British civil service is relatively insular’: GGF’s latest Leading Questions podcast with political scientist Colin Talbot

By on 01/12/2022 | Updated on 01/12/2022

A new Global Government Forum podcast is out featuring professor Colin Talbot – author of the compellingly titled Whitehall watching: reflections on innovation, inertia and ineptitude in British government – who in this episode provides a captivating view of public sector management and how it could be done better.  

A departure from the Leading Questions podcast’s usual focus on public service leaders’ career challenges and highlights, Colin takes a look back at the UK’s public management changes under New Labour, compares the UK governance system with that of other countries, and explains what he sees as the pitfalls of the country’s heavy reliance on central government, including “fundamental mistakes” made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Listen to the podcast here:

Colin’s unconventional route into academia – he is currently professor emeritus at Manchester University and a research associate at the University of Cambridge – affords him a unique and rounded perspective. Having left school at 16 to work in the private sector, Colin went to university some years later to continue his studies and then worked in and for a variety of public sector organisations before landing his first academic role.

As he tells podcast host Siobhan Benita, “when you go in as a consultant, they tell you the truth about what’s going on in the organisation, as opposed to when you go in as a researcher and they tell you the party line”.

His varied experience has given him a keen understanding of how well policies and ideas on paper are likely to work in practice. And herein lies his main criticism of the British system: that there are very limited opportunities for civil servants to go out and experience what it’s like in frontline delivery roles and how programmes and policies play out on the ground.  

“Get people who are going to become the top of the civil service in the education department to go out and work in a school or a multi-academy trust for six months and try and understand how things actually pan out when you promulgate a policy in Whitehall,” he urges.

He explains that a wider breadth of experience is common in other countries’ civil services – those in the US and Germany, for example, where under the federal system officials tend to work in local or state government before moving into central government roles. “I think the top of the [British] civil service is relatively insular compared to a lot of other public services,” he says.

Colin also sets out his second key piece of advice for improving public services in the UK: enabling local government to control economic and social development in their areas more effectively through wider powers and greater capacity, and establishing formal processes for relationships between central government, the devolved governments and local government. “We’re not very good at managing those multi-level government relationships at all,” he says.  

Also touching on lessons from the military on how to work horizontally and vertically; the ‘levelling up’ agenda; why the UK should take note of public administration education in countries like Australia and New Zealand; and navigating the difficulties presented by ministerial churn, this podcast is peppered with ample context, insights, and examples of what Colin believes the UK has got wrong – and right.

This is the fifth episode of Leading Questions Series 2. Other episodes in Series 2:

Australia’s then governance chief Stephanie Foster discusses stepping into the unknown, and embracing her strengths – and flaws – as a leader

Canada’s former head of public service accessibility Yazmine Laroche on championing diversity of thought

UK civil service stalwart Sir Suma Chakrabarti talks of staying sane while managing change

Canada’s former cabinet secretary Michael Wernick on taking the good with the bad

Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top.

We’re searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode of the Leading Questions podcast, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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