UK civil service heads lay out priorities for reform agenda

By on 23/10/2020 | Updated on 23/10/2020
Picture of UK prime minister Boris Johnson at a cabinet meeting
Prime minister Boris Johnson at a cabinet meeting alongside the head of the civil service, Simon Case. Credit: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr.

Improved digital skills, a civil service which better represents the country, and more efficient management of large-scale projects are among the priorities for civil service reform, leaders told a select committee yesterday.

Cabinet secretary Simon Case and Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm made the comments at The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC). Such goals will sound familiar to anyone who has followed UK civil service reform over the last decade.

It was the first time Case had appeared before the Committee since stepping into his new role in September. He said the five main priorities for his tenure as Cabinet secretary are: the COVID-19 response; managing the economic consequences and recovery from the pandemic; the transition out of the EU; working with ministers to maintain the integrity of the union; and ensuring the government delivers on its manifesto promises.

He did not include the civil service reform agenda among his priorities, describing it as an “over-arching” responsibility in his role as head of the service. Alex Chisholm is the “lead for civil service reform,” he said.

The plans for reform

Improving digital skills is a main focus of reform, Chisholm said, calling it “common ground between the prime minister’s advisers, the civil service leadership and indeed colleagues right across the civil service.” This includes better access to data and more advanced systems, as well as enhancing employee skills.

Extending the civil service successfully across the whole of the UK is another priority, according to Chisholm. He said there is a desire to reduce “Whitehall centricity.” Case agreed, adding: “We share a common drive amongst ministers and civil servants to get a civil service that looks, feels and operates geographically more like the country it serves. Less London, more out there in the country.”

Another goal is to improve the record in managing large and complex programmes, too many of which currently “run over their budgets and over their assigned timetables,” said Chisholm. “We’re also very conscious that with the repatriation of a lot of powers as a consequence of our departure from the EU, this is a good opportunity to think again freshly about the quality of the regimes that we have in place across many different sectors and areas of regulation.”

Case added that there is a “requirement on us all to avoid the old ways of siloed working that has perhaps been around in the past.” He said that in response to COVID-19 the civil service has seen some “real innovation and responsiveness”. That dynamic has “helped accelerate some of the changes that we need to make,” he said, with “enormous amounts of data analysis at the moment feeding into policy making” in a way they hadn’t seen before.

Chisholm also said he was “open” to centralising departments such as HR, finance and some other areas that sit “currently within the departmental boundary.”

Spate of departures

During the session, Case denied that any “underlying problem” between ministers and officials had contributed to the departure of a string of permanent secretaries in recent months. But, he added that “we’ve got to remain ever watchful.”

There have been six departures of senior officials over recent months. These include Sir Jonathan Jones, head of the legal department, who quit after an alleged row over the legality of breaking the Brexit withdrawal agreement; and Jonathan Slater, now former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who was sacked following the chaos caused by an algorithm that was used to determine exam results.

Asked whether the “rate of attrition of permanent secretaries” caused him concern, Case said his immediate focus was on his current team and that he and the prime minister were “very confident in the team of permanent secretaries that we’ve got.”

“I think the explanation for each departure is different and always more complicated than as it were the simple media headlines would ever suggest,” he said, adding that his experience was of “a very positive relationship” between civil servants and ministers.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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