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Lack of Civil Service professionalism leading to major project failures

A number of key government projects, including Universal Credit and the Intercity West Coast franchise competition, failed due to a lack of professionalism from civil servants, experts have today argued.

The Institute for Government (IfG) report, called ‘Professionalising Whitehall’, also argued that the government must urgently accelerate ambitious reforms to modernise the way Whitehall works to ensure initiatives are delivered better in the future.

In particular, this includes successfully navigating the UK through Brexit and propping up struggling public services.

Authors of the report explained that departments lacked the specialist skills they needed to properly deliver major projects, and that they failed to make effective use of the resources and specialities they had.

The IfG did acknowledge there had been important successes with professionalising key government activities since 2013, such as policymaking, financial management, commercial procurement and contract management into new cross-departmental specialisms.

But it admitted that in many ways, further reform has been held back, as leadership teams in certain specialisms are better placed than others to push forward with key improvements.

Experts also set out four priorities for Whitehall to identify in accelerating changes, including better integrating specialists into departmental decision-making; enabling people from all specialisms to reach top leadership positions in the Civil Service; bringing together the separate reform plans of the specialisms so they can be better co-ordinated; and introducing more stable funding.

“The government cannot afford more mistakes on such important reforms,” report author and deputy director of the IfG Julian McCrae said. “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.”

Recent research into the effectiveness of the Civil Service has also thrown up a mixed bag of opinions on how well Whitehall is run.

When Article 50 was formally triggered back in March, the PCS and FDA unions slammed the government’s investment in the Civil Service workforce, arguing that it was “woefully underprepared” for Brexit.

Similarly, a separate IfG report in May warned that the Civil Service was “not even close” to being ready for post-Brexit trade.

But in the think tank’s first international index of the sector worldwide, the UK’s Civil Service was actually rated the fourth best in the world for effectiveness, despite its faults.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told PSE:"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."

Top Image: Lauren Hurley, PA Images

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