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Joint Committee needed to avoid civil service disaster

The Government’s programme of incremental change in the Civil Service Reform Plan is “bound to fail”, MPs have warned.

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has published a hard-hitting report criticising the civil service for a lack of strategic coherence and clear leadership, as well as a general lack of trust and openness.

There is a tendency to scapegoat, as seen in the West Coast Main Line debacle where individual officials were blamed rather than there being any department-wide responsibility, the report states.

A persistent lack of key skills and capabilities, as well as an unacceptably high level of churn with lead officials, have led to a “failing organisation”.

PASC has published a single recommendation; for parliament to establish a Joint Committee of both houses to sit as a commission on the future of the Civil Service. The committee should report before the end of parliament with a comprehensive change programme.

Chairman of PASC, Bernard Jenkin MP, said: “While there has been much successful change in the civil service in recent years, particularly in procurement and IT, the overriding narrative is one of recurring discord between ministers and officials. 

“We recognise ministerial frustrations but also note that resistance to change and the tendency to resist decisions is an understandable reaction of officials who feel that the leadership of departments and of Whitehall as a whole is in disagreement. The present Reform Plan has underlined the need for much more radical change in what we expect from civil servants and their accountability. There are deeper problems in the machinery of Whitehall that can only be exposed and addressed by external scrutiny by an independent body.

“Failure to establish a Parliamentary Commission in this Parliament will mean that the periodic disasters and shambles, like the West Coast Main Line, the collapse of the Borders Agency will increasingly recur. The consensus and public confidence supporting the stability of the Civil Service will continue to be eroded. The longer such a Commission is delayed, the more urgent its need will become. Denial is just more of what Francis Maude rightly calls ‘the bias to inertia’. Much more radical analysis and change than are currently contemplated are not to be treated as a distraction from more pressing issues. It is essential if governments are to govern successfully.” 

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “We have the right plan in place and are proud of the steps jointly taken by ministers and civil servants, but we acknowledged in the One Year On report the need to step up the pace in some areas of reform.

“We published the first ever candid report into government's biggest projects, and last year saved the taxpayer £10bn – £600 for every working household.”

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