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How to professionalise Whitehall

With the challenge of Brexit and growing pressures on public services, it is more important than ever that a series of ambitious reforms to the Civil Service modernises the way government works, argues Julian McCrae, deputy director at the Institute for Government (IfG).

Government projects fail when key activities – from contract management to the design of digital services – are not performed properly. Think Universal Credit, the flawed InterCity West Coast franchise competition or the offender tagging fiasco. In each of these cases, departments either lacked the specialist skills they needed or failed to make effective use of those they had.

These problems have long been recognised – indeed, it’s almost 50 years since the 1968 Fulton Report highlighted them. Thankfully, since 2013 the leadership of the Civil Service has stepped up efforts to professionalise key government activities such as policymaking, financial management, commercial procurement and contract management.

A new report by the IfG, ‘Professionalising Whitehall’, provides a stocktake of these reforms. Significant progress has been made in areas such as talent management and departments are now collectively recruiting, developing and deploying their key specialists. There are strong coalitions of cross-departmental leaders emerging – particularly in communications, commercial and legal – that can drive the reforms and make sure they are relevant to departments’ needs.

But there are problems which have held back some reforms, particularly the leadership turnover in digital, finance and project delivery – each of which have had three different heads since 2014.

There are obstacles facing all specialisms. Senior decision-makers in departments need to understand, demand and make better use of the professional support and services offered by specialists. There needs to be better co-ordination between the improvement agendas underway in each specialism, and there needs to be secure funding for the central teams of civil servants that help with day-to-day improvement programmes.

The IfG argues that four areas need to be prioritised if reforms are to be accelerated:

  • Better integration of specialists into department decision-making: Key specialisms like finance and HR need greater representation on departmental executive teams and on the Civil Service Board. The new Civil Service Leadership Academy needs to provide training and mentoring to senior departmental leaders so they know when to engage specialists. And the specialisms themselves must be even more proactive in demonstrating the value of their work to departmental executive teams;
  • Enable people from all specialisms to reach top leadership positions in the Civil Service: Equally, the Civil Service needs to ensure that specialists have greater access to training and mentoring on how to operate within a political environment and influence policy. Crucially, this will help executive teams understand the value of their specialists and have the experience to develop them where they are weak;
  • Bring together the separate reform plans of specialisms: The CEO of the Civil Service should bring together the central heads of each specialism to share information and co-ordinate reform efforts. The current arrangements leave out important specialisms whose leaders are not located in the Cabinet Office – particularly policy and legal;
  • Introduce more stable funding: The Civil Service Board, strengthened through greater representation from core specialisms, should oversee both core budgets and payment models for specialisms to ensure that the system helps departments work more effectively.

If the UK Government is to succeed in negotiating the complex challenges that it now faces, it is vital that the leadership of the Civil Service shows continued commitment to the reforms being pursued by cross-departmental specialisms. There is a lot at stake.



Top Image: Peter M 


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