PM on reforming the civil service

Our PM, Tony Blair, spoke last week on the challenges facing the civil service:

The principal challenge is to shift focus from policy advice to delivery. Delivery means outcomes. It means project management. It means adapting to new situations and altering rules and practice accordingly. It means working not in traditional departmental silos. It means working naturally with partners outside of Government. It’s not that many individual civil servants aren’t capable of this. It is that doing it requires a change of operation and of culture that goes to the core of the Civil Service.

… But too many of these lessons are learnt in crisis and too much of it is exceptional not the norm. For example, I learnt much from the ghastly crisis of Foot and Mouth … But the blunt truth is that it was the Armed Forces’ intervention that was critical to delivery. Why? Because they didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer; they used rules as a means to an end, not an end in themselves; and as the situation changed, they changed.

But essential to their being able to do that, was that people accepted that’s how they were. The political contribution – other than to remove obstacles – was circumspect. They were allowed to take risks. If something failed, they didn’t waste time with a Committee of Inquiry; they tried something else. They had a remorseless focus on delivering the outcome.

What does it mean in practical terms? It means the following:

a smaller, strategic centre;
a Civil Service with professional and specialist skills;
a Civil Service open to the public, private and voluntary sector and encouraging interchange among them;
more rapid promotion within the Civil Service and an end to tenure for senior posts;
a Civil Service equipped to lead, with proven leadership in management and project delivery;
a more strategic and innovative approach to policy;
government organised around problems, not problems around Government.

Too often government’s structures reflect vested interests and tradition. Departmentalism remains strong in Whitehall – usually too strong – and the allocation of ministerial portfolios sometimes unhelpfully reinforces these barriers. So this too is a challenge for politicians as well as officials.

The IT projects now underway in the NHS are among the biggest and most complex in the world – that’s why it was right, for example, to bring Richard Grainger in to oversee IT in the National Health Service. Similar arguments apply to finance and human resource management. The talented amateur, however talented, is simply not equipped for these complex, specialised tasks.

In future the key roles in finance, IT and human resources will be filled by people with a demonstrable professional track record in tackling major organisational change, whether inside or outside the Service.

Of course, I’ve been selective in the quotes I have lifted – and I’d encourage you to read the whole speech, it’s a “line in the sand” speech that says we’ve come a long way (from 1854 when the first “reform the civil service” speech was given, as it says in this speech), but there’s a lot more to do. The speech firmly endorses the Gershon review (see the articles in the FT from a couple of weeks ago that I quote below), looks to the power of technology and underlines the need to rationalise government around the problems it’s seeking to solve – i.e. how to deliver services to the citizen the way the citizen needs them.

I think this is an amazing speech. It’s timely, forward thinking, ambitious and huge in scope. In just a few pages, the PM has laid down an enormous challenge for government – ministerial and civil service – to respond to.

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