Baroness Finn is a Conservative peer, non-executive director at the Cabinet Office and a member of the Commission for Smart Government.
In a year when the Covid pandemic has rocked the machinery of government and tested the civil service’s ability to deliver for the nation, we should welcome the appointment of Simon Case as the new Cabinet Secretary. His former mentor, the great constitutional historian, Peter Hennessey, has hailed his formidable intellect and “heavy-duty powers of organisation”. Case not only understands Whitehall. He has also won the confidence of the Prime Minister with the quality of his advice and his proven ability to think of different ways of doing things.
The challenges are daunting. The civil service has a less than perfect record of implementation, and now, more than ever, needs people with the right capabilities and skills to deliver better services to citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown some of the best of public service, has also exposed structural weaknesses in our bureaucracy, from the data deficiencies of the A-levels fiasco, the digital defects of the NHSX contact-tracing app, and the friction between devolved and centralised power.
As Paul Maynard wrote for ConservativeHome earlier this week, “the machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace.” The problems were already in evidence. All modern governments face challenges from rising consumer demands, the rapid advance of technology and limited resources. But the public health and economic crises mean that reform is now inescapable.
As a veteran of the Francis Maude and Jeremy Heywood era of civil service reform during the Coalition Government, I know that reform must be continuous. There was a lot of change during this period, only some of which has been properly entrenched.
The setting up of cross-cutting functions at the centre of government and imposition of spending controls saved many billions of pounds and brought in crucial expertise in key areas such as commercial procurement, digital government, and major project management. The creation of the Government Digital Service meant that the UK went to the top of the UN digital rankings in 2016, having been a byword for incompetence in 2009. But there is much more to do.
As I argued at the Institute for Government earlier in the year, the risk-averse culture in the civil service, which has stifled innovation from many brilliant officials, must be replaced by an entrepreneurial attitude that empowers civil servants to experiment and take calculated risks.
The endless meetings and obsession with process that hinder timely implementation have to stop. We need to break down the departmental silos and allow ideas and best practice to flow across government. We also need the political layer to sustain their focus on the need to support reform.
A crucial difference between 2010 and now is the greater willingness of senior civil servants to acknowledge failings in the civil service. During the Coalition Government, Maude was heavily criticised for saying that things needed to change.
He always said that we have some of the best civil servants in the world – I had the privilege of working with many of them and they articulated the problems far better than many ministers – but when Maude highlighted the faults in the service, it was almost seen as heresy and he was attacked by some retired mandarins for having the impertinence to suggest that change was needed.
That culture of ultra-defensiveness, born out of a strange cocktail of insecurity and complacency, has to change. The fact that it has become commonplace to acknowledge the problems and need for change is important – and a key legacy of Maude and Heywood’s leadership
There is a significant appetite for reform at the top of government. Boris Johnson has talked of the frustration of pulling levers and finding they are not attached to anything. He has charged Michael Gove, one of the Government’s strongest ministers and a proven reformer, with driving through a transformation of the civil service machine.
His Ditchley Lecture – thoughtful, provocative and inspiring – set out the moral case for change and made clear that achieving Johnson’s ambition of levelling up the country depends on making the system of government work better.
Maude has been brought back to conduct a short review of the Government’s central capabilities to identify where progress has slipped. Downing Street staff, including the Prime Minister’s advisers and policy unit, are moving to a new ‘command centre” at the Cabinet Office as part of plans to integrate its functions more closely with Number 10.
The best ideas for reform won’t come from within government alone. We need to hear from those who have worked in and with the civil service about what could be done better. That’s why I’ve joined the Commission for Smart Government which was launched last month to consider how to make public administration more effective.
Nick Herbert, the radically-minded former minister and Chair of the Commission, has rightly argued that systemic problems are too often blamed on civil servants when politicians are equally responsible for failure. Ministers can be at fault here – too often uninterested in institutional reform, chasing headlines, and jumping from idea to idea. When we consider how to ensure that the executive has the right skills and experience, we also need to think about how to equip ministers as well.
The Commission, which has an impressive membership of experts and senior leaders, is consulting on the key questions about the UK’s public administration. What are the examples of best practice from which we can learn? How can we attract the best people, nurture their talents and retain world-class public officials? How can we use transparency and accountability to drive efficiency? How can we maximise the public benefit from the targeted deployment of data science and artificial intelligence? How can we harness technological innovation to drive better governance as one of the commissioners, Daniel Korski, has proposed?
The Commission’s consultation is being conducted on an open platform, making our draft papers and evidence sessions visible, and encouraging all those with ideas and experience to contribute. We want to encourage all those interested in better government to contribute practical ideas for a fundamental overhaul of the British state
This pandemic will not be the last major crisis we face. The civil service needs to be confident in its ability to lead the world in the quality of its crisis response and proud of its track record of delivering for all corners of the UK.
This Government’s success depends on the ability of the civil service to implement policies, projects and manifesto promises. On his appointment, Case said that it was a privilege to “lead a service that is working day in, day out to deliver for people right across the country.” This Government has big ambitions. He must ensure that Whitehall can deliver them.