Why do UK civil servants rank themselves as the least responsive government?

By on 08/12/2021 | Updated on 04/01/2022
UK government buildings in Whitehall, London. Photo: Pixaby


Global Government Forum and PA Consulting’s Responsive Government Survey
 examined the views of civil servants from nine countries on how responsive their government was to the changing demands and pressures of modern government.

The survey, which received 873 responses, including 133 from senior officials, across nine countries, found that almost three-quarters of participants (72%) agreed with the statement “My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs”, with just 19% disagreeing.

But among the respondents, the UK stood out for its lack of confidence. Average weighted scores found that the UK had the lowest overall score with its leaders particularly downbeat on questions around bureaucracy, budget, technology, human resources and collaboration. Only 12% of senior civil servants in the UK agreed with a statement that there was “little unnecessary bureaucracy in their organisation”, with 85% disagreeing. Top UK officials were also sceptical that their organisation provides an environment where people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice to help problem solve, with just 38% agreeing, compared to around three in five more widely.

UK – both senior and at lower grades – were also the least confident that they give people dedicated time to pursue new ideas and solutions. UK civil servants were least certain of those in the Five Eyes countries that taking calculated, proportionate risks is encouraged, and that ideas are never disregarded without due consideration.

This theme continued throughout the UK’s responses. UK leaders were especially downbeat about their organisations’ ability to hire new talent to support change, with only 19% agreeing with the statement versus 62% who disagreed – a discrepancy that made it an outlier.

In a similar vein, UK leaders had glum views on budgetary capabilities: just 23% agreed that they had sufficient dedicated budget for pursuing change, against 58% who disagreed. Most of the nations were generally dissatisfied with their budgets, however; Sweden was again the outlier in the leadership group, with 60% strongly agreeing that their budget was sufficient.

Interdepartmental co-operation was worst in the UK, where fewer than one-third (31%) of leaders agreed that we have an open workflow and knowledge exchange with other government organisations. For contrast, the US leads the Five Eyes group on this: 64% of civil servants agreed to some extent.

The UK’s score is low despite the government having innovated in its response to coronavirus, with the Treasury building the furlough scheme in just a few weeks and cross-government schemes being developed to house homeless people and provide food to those who were shielding through the pandemic.

Indeed, the UK cohort recorded the strongest agreement among Five Eyes nations that adapting to change in the pandemic had helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present beforehand, with 83% of the core group and 96% of leaders agreeing.

But this did not lead to higher scores overall, despite the UK civil service scoring highly in other measures of civil service performance. Are UK civil servants too self-critical in response to highly combative media and political culture? Do the negative responses reflect the impact of a bruising period of political division in which they were often vilified publicly by their ministers?

In the Responsive Government Survey, Philip Oliver, public sector strategy expert, PA Consulting, attributed these low levels to a combination of factors, including long-term austerity and underinvestment in IT and data, inflexible pay structures that deter talent, and a perception that the service has become more politicised.

“The separation between the executive and the civil service, which has been held strongly in the UK for many years, has become more blurred recently,” Oliver said. “The civil service is there to provide balanced, impartial advice to ministers. It’s also there to land what are ostensibly very difficult messages that sometimes prevent a government from fully implementing what they want to implement. And, while I’m not saying that work isn’t still being done to build out the propositions and proposals fully, there is a much greater emphasis now by civil servants on the political implications of decisions and advice.”

Neil Amos, policing and justice lead for PA Consulting, highlighted the sense from government that “if they want to get anything done, they’ll bring people in to shake things up”, which the effect might be to undermine the confidence and optimism among civil servants about the job.”

But, on the bright side, Amos is not surprised that UK respondents were positive about their Covid response and suggested the pandemic has been “galvanising” for the civil service. “In a way, people have been liberated from their bureaucratic shackles, because things had to get done – the vaccination programme, ventilators, the furlough scheme. On a psychological level, there is something about the fact that it is only government that can do these things.

“After they had been beaten over the head for so many years and told ‘public sector bad, private sector good’, the pandemic re-established to civil servants that it’s the public sector who has to respond to this – in partnership with industry, sure, but it’s got to be led by government.”

Global Government Forum and PA Consulting will present the findings of the Responsive Government Survey during a webinar on 20 January 2022.

The 2021 survey is a pilot project that will expand in scope and coverage in future years.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *