UK commission report calls for fewer, better-paid civil servants

By on 13/07/2021 | Updated on 13/07/2021
Michael Gove, the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office visits 123 St Vincent Street which will house the new temporary Cabinet Office in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Senior UK civil servants should have to show delivery experience outside Whitehall and demonstrate their skills in a set of key fields, according to a new report by an influential reform commission – though the commission also urges government to boost the civil servants’ pay and provide high-quality training.

In a report published today, the Commission for Smart Government sets out a range of recommendations. These include: requiring senior officials to demonstrate digital skills and hit a new “SCS Standard” covering capabilities including numeracy, data and financial management, and project, programme and portfolio management; allowing non-parliamentarians to serve “by exception” as ministers; and reshaping departments at the heart of government.

“In the end our ambition should be to make lives better for the British people… bold policy and visions on their own are insufficient. What we need is a system that will be able to deliver on those ambitions,” said the commission’s chair, Conservative Party peer Lord Herbert, at an event to launch the report.

Four steps

The report sets four priorities for reform: making government “strategic, capable, innovative and accountable”.

The recommendations for the senior civil service (SCS) sit within the second strand, “capable government”. Under these recommendations, permanent secretaries roles would be replaced by chief executives “with a clear focus on strategy, execution, and organisational effectiveness”.

Alongside developing the “SCS Standard”, the report states that senior appointments would need to show “substantial operational delivery experience outside Whitehall”, with all existing SCS to meet these requirements within two years.

Further recommendations around talent include reducing the headcount in the civil service and increasing pay to boost “talent density”. Likewise a Queen Elizabeth II School of Public Service should be established, the commission says. This programme would be equivalent to a business school offering in the private sector and would support the training of civil servants, public sector leaders and politicians.

The commission also recommends that the government should “by exception, enable people to serve as ministers without having to be parliamentarians.” Speaking at the report’s launch event on Monday night, Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, offered his support for this suggestion.

“We’ve tended to have a medieval guild structure when it comes to the civil service and in particular to ministerial life, and… we need to move beyond it,” Gove said. “I think absolutely the principle that people can serve by exception as ministers and were drawn for a period of time from different disciplines is absolutely right.”

In endorsing this recommendation, Gove pointed to the Second World War, when Britain moved fast in bringing external expertise into government. He also noted that during the pandemic response, biotech investment specialist Kate Bingham was put in charge of the UK’s vaccines taskforce – taking the programme out of the civil service’s direct control. Her appointment was initially criticised, but she led a highly successful project resulting in a rapid UK vaccine roll-out.

Gove said his department will be closely reviewing the report to discover where it could adopt its recommendations, and where it is already working towards them through existing plans.

Structural changes

The first pillar of reforms is labelled “strategic government” and includes the suggestion to create a “Prime Minister’s Department” to replace the Cabinet Office and Number 10.

Such a department would “provide stronger support to the prime minister and government in bringing departments together, defining and delivering on strategic goals, and bringing about government reform,” it says. The commission also argues that a “Treasury Board” in the PM’s Department should give “strategic direction” and spending oversight.

Digital transformation

To make government “innovative”, the commission called for a range of digital transformation approaches, including new “Digital Task Forces” with a “remit to design and deliver new services” while working across departments.

At the report’s launch event, the commission’s project director Sophie Miremadi asked: “What do really innovative organisations look like? They tend to be highly collaborative, non-hierarchical, with an intense focus on the problems they’re solving.”

Finally, the commission called for a range of oversight measures to boost accountability, including an “Ofsted for government departments”.

This would use “a structured annual process for assessing departments’ effectiveness to common standards, with published results, and with the assessment as the principal measure of chief executives’ effectiveness.”

Herbert provided further details of the commission’s thinking at the Global Government Summit, explaining – alongside fellow commission member and former UK permanent secretary Sir Suma Chakrabarti – why its infuential members believe that the UK government is “failing to match strategic vision with execution” and setting out the logic behind merging elements of the Treasury, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. Alongside former civil service leaders, non-executive directors, ministers and policy advisers, the commissioners include serving non-execs and other figures with close ties to the current government.

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