Civil Service Reform

Reform of the civil service is a hardy perennial in the garden of political issues. Groups campaign for it, parties discuss it, Governments promise it. But rarely does it actually happen, beyond tinkering at the edges, and the cycle inevitably repeats itself.

Yesterday Reform (cross-party think tank, and a leading voice in the call for structural changes in Government) sought to start that process off once more, with the launch of their critique of the Civil Service, 'Not Fit for Purpose'.

Following a decade or more of much publicised civil service failures (from major procurement projects to the Rural Payments Agency fiasco), Reform have cause enough to call for comprehensive and radical change. They may also be right about the timing too; with the inevitable fiscal constraints due to pinch the public sector budget, a Government may be more willing to consider it.

Identifying and dismissing the many myths that surround the civil service - such as its 'independence and 'impartiality' - Reform's report goes on to lay out five recommendations, with which to bring 'Britain's Civil Service into line with international best practice':

(1) Democratically elected politicians should have the power to appoint civil servants.
(2) The doctrine of Ministerial responsibility should be abolished ... Ministers should be responsible for the strategic direction of policy and its communication. Officials should be personally responsible for the construction of policy and its resources.
(3) All Civil Service vacancies should be advertised openly. Discrimination in favour of "internal" over "external" candidates and the system of grades should be abolished.
(4) Civil servants need to act as if their every decision is open to scrutiny. Select committees should call a much greater range of officials for evidence.
(5) All political parties should make Civil Service reform a reality of their shared commitment to 'localism'.

(To read the full report click here)

Not withstanding the last of these (for neither party has shown any real commitment to localism, past its 'buzzword' attraction), the four other recommendations are probably good, sensible reforms which will probably improve the accountability and performance of some in the civil service. If implemented. And it is a truly huge 'if'. The Cabinet Minister Liam Byrne was there yesterday at the launch of the report, waxing lyrical about his and the Government's enthusiasm for reform, but the evidence of it is pretty thin on the ground. Beyond the cosmetic and the out-right unavoidable, this Government has not enacted any major civil service reform, nor looks likely too in the future.

What the report (and the panel yesterday) fails to mention are the enormous roadblocks in the way of reform; the unions. Government's are unwilling to waste political capital battling the Civil Service unions over reform, when the votes in it are few and far between. In fact the political risks to a Government probably outweigh the perceived gains. Hence the lack of reform in the past. Reform's paper successfully identifies the problems. But its failure to engage with the more critical issue of how Governments actually go about convincing the civil service that change is in its interest - or politicians that it is worth the risks in imposing on them regardless - probably dooms the report to being just another siren call in the endless cycle of 'civil service reform'.

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