Tory aide signals way forward on UK civil service reform

By on 02/01/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Prime minister Boris Johnson and his most senior aide Dominic Cummings are planning wholesale changes to the civil service. (Image courtesy: Andrew Parsons, i-Images).

UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s inner circle has signalled its goals in civil service reform in an article by the architect of the party’s election-winning manifesto, Rachel Wolf, published by The Daily Telegraph on 1 January.

In it, Wolf says the focus of the reforms – which are being driven by Johnson’s special advisor and long-time Whitehall critic, Dominic Cummings – should be recruitment and training; discouraging officials from moving roles and departments regularly; and ensuring the civil service is public facing.

She also writes that she “wouldn’t be surprised if officials, and special advisers, were set exams” to prove their competence.  

Wolf – the co-writer of the Tory manifesto, former advisor to Johnson, and partner at lobby group Public First – also reinforces the message that the reforms, mooted to be implemented in the spring after the UK has left the EU, go much deeper than “machinery of government” changes.

She writes that civil servants are not ready for the “seismic” changes being planned by Number 10. Many officials “cannot believe” the PM and Cummings “mean business”, she says, and “as a result, they seem woefully unprepared for what is coming”.

Wolf’s column follows leaks to the press in December revealing that the government is planning to make wholesale changes to the civil service, including potentially replacing permanent secretaries with political appointees; making it easier to hire and fire civil servants; and shutting or merging several departments.

It was also reported that the government is considering creating a strong “office of the prime minister” to exert greater control over Whitehall, and encouraging the appointment of external experts into the civil service.

Recruiting officials with science degrees

In the Telegraph piece, Wolf writes that Downing Street wants to “run the most dynamic state in the world – one that gathers the brightest minds to deliver in new agencies focused on innovation, solving the productivity puzzle, and transforming swathes of the country”.

She dismisses suggestions that some of the changes would constitute politicisation of the civil service, adding that socialists would be welcome “in the right jobs”, as long as they can deliver.

In a section about recruitment and training, Wolf points out that just 17% of fast streamers – the “cream of civil servant entrants” – have science-related degrees.

“Humanities dominate and, once appointed, individuals are not expected to become quantitatively competent. So training is going to be taken more seriously,” she says. “Data science, systems thinking, and super-forecasting will be on the list.”  

Rising to “positions of incompetence”

Wolf adds that “any official who has spent more than 18 months in a post is seen to have stalled” and that this is because the civil service prioritises “transferable skills over knowledge”. This, she says, has “catastrophic effects”, killing expertise and allowing officials to escape from accountability, and ensuring civil servants rise to “positions of incompetence”.

She says she would expect officials to be kept on projects where they know the background and to be rewarded and held accountable to a “much greater degree” than they are currently. This, she says, implies a rethink of pay and incentives.

Both past governments and the civil service have been aware of this issue for decades. The existing structure of the civil service is built around ensuring that senior civil servants have experience in a range of roles and departments – although there is acknowledgement that this creates tension between leadership skills and expertise in specific areas.    

In recent years, attempts have been made to encourage civil servants to stay in posts long enough to see projects through from start to finish. The government plans to implement a new SCS performance management system in 2021-22, which includes an increased focus on rewards for achieving key milestones. Cummings appears to want to take this further.

Wolf also writes in The Telegraph that departments are geared more towards stakeholders than to the electorate and that “too many officials see special interests as their customers”. Instead, the civil service should be reoriented towards the public. “A government that delivers for the people must always be thinking about the people,” she says.

“The government understands that in five years it won’t be judged on the way the civil service is designed but on whether it has delivered on its promises. Public sector reform is the route to getting there,” her piece in the Telegraph concludes.  

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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