UK cabinet secretary sets out five tests for civil service effectiveness

By on 21/02/2023 | Updated on 21/02/2023
A profile picture of Simon Case

The UK’s most senior civil servant has set out for the first time the five tests that he uses to measure Whitehall effectiveness.

In a speech delivered last month at Bristol University, Simon Case said the assessments can be used to “monitor how well we are earning and re-earning the support and consent of the people”.

Case said that the civil service “must seize the moment; and not miss the opportunity to keep applying the many lessons we learn – sometimes painfully, often successfully – from the day-to-day and the moments of crisis, to achieve lasting change”.

The five tests Case set out for the civil service are:

  • Do we know who our customers are? And do we serve them well? Are we delivering what our elected representatives ask of us, on behalf of the voter and the taxpayer?
  • Are we staying true to our core purpose? Even as we do that necessary modernising, are we staying true to our roots?
  • Are we updating the way we do things to stay relevant? Are we adopting new technologies, systems and processes so that we can solve problems and deliver public services in the way that 21st century citizens would want?
  • Is our approach to managing risk proportionate? Have we got the balancing act right? In a fast-changing world, are we neither too cautious, nor too reckless?
  • Do we have the right people in the right places? Do we have the workforce we need to meet the challenges of today – and tomorrow?

Case said these were not pass or fail questions, but rather benchmarks for performance. “The tests allow us, and others, to judge whether we are staying relevant and effective over the passage of time,” he said.

‘People, rightly, were unhappy when their passports were held up’

Expanding on each of the themes, Case said that knowing and serving customers in the civil service applied to both permanent secretaries working with ministers in departments to get their priorities implemented, and operational civil servants delivering frontline services for citizens.

He highlighted the Passport Office as an example of where the government responded to the needs of citizens by getting passport application rates back on track following the coronavirus pandemic.

“People, rightly, were unhappy when their passports were held up – over 400,000 did not arrive within the target time last year,” Case acknowledged. “The Passport Office has worked hard to turn things around. As of last week [16-20 January], 99.4% of UK applications did meet the target. You don’t often hear about that in the news.”

On the second point, Case described the core purpose of officials in government as “selfless service”, but highlighted the government was at “an inflection point” leading to better use of data to solve problems and design better public services.

Expanding on how the civil service can stay relevant, Case admitted it is “quite a challenge to get all 500,000 of us to be constantly innovating and evolving”, but added “it’s a challenge we try to take head on”.

Read more: UK to upskill civil servants in data science: policy & delivery news in brief

As well as technology, Case said staying relevant means tackling policy and delivery silos across Whitehall.

“We are getting better at joining up thinking across departments, professions and functions – but we do need to do more of it, and faster, because the problems we are tackling don’t fit neatly under any one department,” he said. “But we must work more across institutional boundaries too – we can always achieve more by working together. We need to break down barriers. Make things easier by simplifying processes. Collaborate more; complicate less.”

Among the examples Case highlighted where government was making progress was the development of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, where people around the UK offered to open their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war. The government chose, Case said, not to be the big-state player of the pandemic era but instead a light-touch digital facilitator to connect together interested parties.

“Ukrainians are matched via an online platform with UK sponsors offering up accommodation; they receive an allowance for that generosity of spirit,” he said.

“It’s an interesting model of reaching across institutional boundaries to solve a collective problem – in government, a multidisciplinary Whitehall team, working with local authorities, charities and private sector partners; each providing a key piece of the puzzle.”

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‘The risk of the missed opportunity’

Case also touched on the conflict in Ukraine when addressing his fourth point around risk.

Institutions must constantly recalibrate their threshold and appetite for risk, he said, and Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine was one a number of recent occasions – also including the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic – “when the risk is so great that our standard responses are simply inadequate and we must do new things to respond”.

“That requires grit and a certain courage that the average onlooker might not traditionally associate with the civil service,” he said.

“But during the pandemic we moved with a decisiveness and turn of speed that surprised many. Such bravery and leadership continue in the civil service today and I am proud to champion it where it is found. I am keen that the civil service – instead of waiting for the existential crisis to shrug process aside – constantly seeks to make rapid decisions, turn things around.”

Read more: ‘International leadership’: UK review sets out roadmap to achieving net zero

Although he said that “it’s not always right to throw off the shackles” of government spending guidance, “my point is that you adjust your risk appetite depending on the context”. He specifically highlighted that there are often risks in failing to act and “in the missed opportunity”.

On the final point on people, Case said the UK government was both “overhauling our training development programmes, and casting our talent net far and wide”.

He added: “Our priorities are to develop our digital and data capabilities; grow our science and engineering expertise; and build our project and operational delivery skills”.

In particular, the government is working with the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to bring mid-career science and engineering experts into the civil service, he said.

“We saw in the pandemic that when we bring in people mid-career from these disciplines, they can make a huge difference to our policy thinking and the delivery of our services.”

Find out more about the Civil Service Data Challenge

Driving civil service data training

Case expanded on the development of data skills in particular, highlighting that “data training is not just for specialists or graduates – it’s far too important for that. He revealed that all civil servants will this year complete at least one day of dedicated data training.

“I know that doesn’t sound like a lot – one day of data training – but that’s 500,000 days of training in a year,” Case concluded. “Because we do need our data experts, the ‘ninjas’ as I call them. The reality is that every civil servant needs to be better equipped to use data in how they solve problems; and design and deliver public services.”

Officials in the UK government have previously named a lack of training as among the top barriers to transforming government services in exclusive Global Government Forum research.

The UK Civil Service Digital Skills Report found that half of officials name legacy technology that is no longer fit for purpose (50%), and budget constraints/lack of funding (50%) as the top issues when asked what is significantly holding them back from using digital to improve public services.

Other significant factors highlighted by the 1,006 respondents to the survey included a lack of fit-for-purpose civil service funded training opportunities, and a lack of knowledge at the strategic level in government.

Read in full: Exclusive insight into how UK civil servants rate their digital skills

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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