Leading article: Sir Humphrey won't like it, but reform must come

Share
Related Topics

Long before Yes Minister became a British, and then an international, television success, the terms Civil Service and reform, used together, were wont to raise scornful laughter. To this day, the senior levels of government service retain, not always justly, this image of institutional immutability. A report out today, couched as an open letter to the heads of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake, wants to change that. It has much to commend it.

The Institute for Government, an independent think tank, takes as its starting point the swingeing spending cuts that all departments – with the exception of health and international development – are having to make. Rather than bewailing the decline in quality and services many believe these will mean, however, the institute sees a chance to do things differently – even, perhaps, to do them better.

This, at least, makes for some positive thinking, even if many of the difficulties the institute identifies go back a very long way. Tensions between ministers and their senior civil servants, for instance, are not necessarily a bad thing. They can be productive rather than destructive, and they can warn of political trouble ahead. Both sorts of tension have their uses.

One of the institute's chief points – not new, but worth reiterating until it is actually heeded – is that there is a limit to the cuts that can be made by bureaucrat's favoured method of salami-slicing. It is time instead to look at more radical ways of restructuring, and streamlining, with top civil servants required to think outside their particular department. The way some Foreign Office spending has been hived off to the Department for International Development might be an example – but perhaps not one the institute has in mind, as it just moves the same money around.

Overlapping within and between departments is certainly a defect that needs to be tackled. That it has so often been neglected, however, is because addressing it threatens entrenched empires and thus morale. It requires political will from ministers, and managerial will from the very top of the Civil Service, at a time when both see other priorities. Institutional reform is rarely seen as "sexy".

Two other points of the institute's thinking also tread on some sensitive toes – which is why they deserve to be taken seriously. One is a call for Civil Service departments to improve the way they work with non-government or hybrid organisations. This is a requirement as urgent as it is basic. The risks inherent in the proliferation of what the institute calls "arm's length bodies" were illustrated well in the malfunctioning of the Border Agency, where the lines of responsibility were disastrously blurred. But there are many examples, and the more departments try to save money by buying in various services, the more there are likely to be.

The other recommendation is that there should be far more senior civil servants qualified in finance, whether to foster accountability or to negotiate contracts effectively. Such a demand might be seen as elementary, were it not for all the misfired computer contracts and massive overspends in military procurement. Permanent secretaries, it says, should be personally held to account. Cue applause.

Sceptics will respond to all this by saying that they will believe in Civil Service reform only when they see it. That at last someone – the Institute for Government – recognises not only the need for change, but the shape it should take, marks a measure of progress and deserves to open a public debate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Supporters of New Democracy wave Greek flags during Antonis Samaras pre-election speech.  

Greece elections: Where does power lie? This is the question that ties the UK to Athens

Steve Richards
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project