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I spent an hour or so yesterday at the think tank Reform discussing a draft paper on civil service reform. The paper is a perfectly decent canter over the usual terrain. The argument is that the civil service is not fit for purpose, something that has been exposed by various policy and commissioning disasters but also by the dissatisfaction of ministers I and the many flaws exposed by the Cabinet Office capability reviews.

The argument is that incremental change has not worked. From this, reports tend to move to a set of options which focus on the interface between ministers and senior civil servants.

This is fine as far as it goes, and I certainly agree that the biggest challenges for the service lie in the relationship between the politicians and the officials.  My problem with the approach is that it takes as given the demands made on departments by ministers.

If we were looking at the performance of any other large organisation it would be appropriate to ask whether it is sensible to expect the organisation to be able to do well all the things asked of it. This is why the outcome of many reviews of private and third sector organisations is that they should hive off functions or try to do less better. But this isn’t simply a matter of the civil service devolving more to localities or setting up more arm’s length agencies.

For departments to function effectively there needs to be a better way of managing and regulating the demands made on them. The question should not simply be ‘has the department delivered what it was supposed to’ but also ‘was it ever reasonable to expect the department to deliver what was asked of it?’

As well as questioning the process by which departmental workloads are determined, and redefined, by politicians - often without notice or any assessment of capacity or effect on existing work programmes -  we also need to recognise that the ‘civil’ duties of the civil service are not merely about responding to the demands poured into them from their ministerial masters. The question needs to be how departments manage inputs, not just top down, but also from the wider policy community and society itself. 

The idea that Whitehall can often be out of touch with ‘the front line’ of policy delivery is hardly new. It is most often addressed through the collection of detailed data. But departmental decision makers need to have the scope to gain deeper insights into the experiences of the people delivering its policies and on their receiving end. And senior officials also have a vital ‘civil’ role in managing the policy community, not simply responding to lobbying from vested interests or receiving the ideas of academics and think tanks but working with the community so that it engages constructively and creatively with the Government’s objectives.

A truly radical approach to civil service reform would recognise that the civil and democratic responsibilities of senior public officials lie not simply in the service of their political masters but in being accountable and connected to policy communities and wider society. From this starting point, any fundamental inquiry into how the civil service can possibly work better for us all must include questioning the fitness for purpose of the cultures, methods and demands of the political system of Government.

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