UK civil service urged to step up professionalism reforms

By on 13/09/2017
The Institute for Government’s offices by St James’s Park, London

A report has called for a “greater sense of urgency” around ongoing reforms to the UK civil service to ensure it has a “fighting chance” of handling the growing pressures it faces.

In a study published last week, London-based think tank the Institute for Government said the progress Whitehall has made in professionalising core government activities must be accelerated to keep pace with issues such as Brexit and other “huge” pressures on public services.

The report, “Professionalising Whitehall”, highlighted how historical shortcomings in the way the British civil service organises the core specialisms departments need, in areas such as finance, procurement, communications and contract management, had led to failures in “countless” major government projects.

Since 2013, reforms have been underway to brigade the specialists undertaking key activities across departments, providing a degree of shared leadership, training, career development and cross-government staff deployment.

Taking stock of how that process has progressed, the IfG report notes some “important successes”, and applauds efforts to ensure the necessary cross-department specialisms are in place to meet the civil service’s many and growing challenges.

But the various professions are at very different stages of development, and the report identifies some of the reasons behind this variation in progress. These include: disruption from a high leadership turnover; constraints on the heads of some specialisms in balancing day-to-day roles with cross-departmental responsibilities; a lack of human resources in some specialisms; and the absence of stable funding.

With massive challenges on the horizon for the UK civil service – notably Brexit – the report says further work is needed to address these obstacles, and to accelerate and embed reforms.

Specifically, it recommends better coordination between the improvement agendas underway in each cross-department specialism, and secure funding for the central units that have been set up to drive forward professionalisation efforts. It also says specialist civil servants need to be offered clear pathways to develop their careers and reach top leadership positions.

IfG deputy director and report co-author Julian McCrae added: “The government cannot afford more mistakes on such important reforms. There are huge pressures on the public sector, which will only increase as the UK leaves the European Union.

“Our report highlights a number of key obstacles facing all specialisms which civil service leaders have to address. Senior decision-makers in government departments need to understand, demand and make better use of the professional support and services offered by specialists.”

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for civil service reform in the UK, said: “”The civil service continues to drive greater use of specialised expertise. We also remain committed to training and developing staff, including investing in apprenticeships, specialist fast streams and a Leadership Academy.”

The academy is a flagship Cabinet Office initiative aimed at developing the professions within the UK civil service, and is due to launch later this year.

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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