Future of the civil service

Written evidence submitted by Professor Matthew Flinders (University of Sheffield), Professor Chris Skelcher (University of Birmingham), Dr. Katharine Dommett (University of Sheffield) & Dr Katherine Tonkiss (University of Birmingham) [1]

1. The ‘Shrinking the State’ Research Project submitted a first Memorandum of evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee in October 2012 as part of the initial inquiry into ‘Civil Service Reform’. This second submission should be read in conjunction with that initial submission as it seeks to develop and take forward several of the themes and issues that were raised in that document.

2. The future of the civil service is inevitably inter-twined with the future of other elements of the bureaucratic landscape. In considering the future of the civil service it is therefore vital to reflect upon the structure and role of the public sector more generally. It is possible to suggest that at the moment this broader strategic thinking is not taking place. More specifically, the civil service reform agenda and the public bodies reform agenda appear to be taking place along parallel reform pathways with little obvious consideration of the relationship between these paths.

3. The fragmentation of the reform agenda – within which civil service reform is just one element - is demonstrated in the odd constitutional position of non-ministerial departments, in the procedure for triennial reviews (applied to non-departmental public bodies but not to executive agencies or independent health bodies), and in the lack of any document that provides a comprehensive and accurate account of exactly how the state is structured, who does what and why.

4. A valuable contribution to the current reform agenda – for the internal reform architects and the external scrutineers – would be a simple ‘Diagram of Governance’ that set out the various organisations that exist. Added to this could be organisational charts that display the structural relationship between departments and the diversity of sponsor bodies they oversee.

5. These charts would reveal the ‘hidden wiring’ of the British bureaucracy and would go some way to increasing levels of public understanding and transparency. Given the large number of official inquiries and parliamentary reports that have attempted to ‘map the quango state’ there is also reason to believe that the publication of ‘landscape reviews’ or ‘end-to-end’ reviews would also be of great value to civil servants and ministers. They would also add value in allowing the government to work strategically across government.

6. The interface between public bodies and the civil service generally takes place through the work of ‘sponsor teams’ or ‘Fraser figures’. Previous research – within and beyond the civil service – have identified problem with the training and support given to members of departmental sponsorship teams. The creation of a cross-Whitehall Sponsorship Network in 2010 was therefore widely welcomed as a positive step towards providing greater professional peer support and training. As of February 2013 the current role and future of the Sponsorship Network appears unclear.

7. One of the central dilemmas for the future of the civil service relates to staff turnover. The current ‘Methodist minister’ model of three-year postings creates serious challenges in terms of clear accountability, institutional memory, talent management and commitment to change. Officials very rarely see one project from initiation to completion and this creates problems for those seeking to support the project from beyond the civil service. A focus on project-completion, alongside very clear personal accountability, would be a very welcome addition to personnel management plans. The departure of permanent secretaries from the civil service is therefore an issue for those concerned with the levels of staff turnover and churn but the more fundamental issue concerns intra-civil service churn and turnover.

8. The role of ministers in the appointment of permanent secretaries is not a new issue but does relate to current concerns about strategic capacity and the future of the civil service. Ministers already play a role in the selection and appointment of permanent secretaries but this is generally undertaken through informal procedures. If this is currently the case we see no reason why ministers should not be given a limited but transparent role in selecting from a short-list of candidates that had been drawn-up by the Civil Service Commission. This would not amount to the politicisation of the civil service as candidates would have been selected through an independent and merit-based appointments procedure.


[1] We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the ESRC research award ES/J010553/1.

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Prepared 8th March 2013