I have been intrigued to read many articles about the creation of a CEO for the Civil Service. Insiders, and many outside including me, have pondered how this change will work when you have the all powerful Cabinet Secretary and individual Permanent Secretaries reporting directly to their Secretary of State.
My assessment is that creating a CEO position is unlikely to yield much result on its own, but by other significant transformations and the bringing together of other changes introduced by the coalition Government could yield a Civil Service fit for the next period of our history.
First of all Permanent Secretaries in the Ministries are King, the CEO will have little real influence or say if the Secretary of State does not agree with the CEO. The Cabinet Secretary himself has always had a significant challenge in that whilst he has always been the most senior Civil Servant he does not control the Permanent Secretaries. So what should we do?
First of all it might be worth recapping on a number of themes:
- The Civil Service is not renowned for its delivery skills, “failed x or y” is common reading. However it does have a brilliance in policy formulation – i.e. the theory behind solving complex problems
- There is no concept of accountability in the Civil Service. If anything goes wrong the Secretary of State should fall on his/her sword, officials are “protected”. There is neither incentive for success nor disincentive for failure, mediocrity can reign supreme and you make it to the top by not making mistakes and therefore risk taking is not on the agenda
- Politicians are not always interested or confident in delivery, because of what I have said above, they believe their main job is done when they make the policy announcement. Soiling ones hands is rife with career danger – think Universal Credit, think ID cards…
- Policy delivery is a risk to officials as it means accountability. Writing a policy is a piece of cake in comparison to delivering the actual changes for say Universal Credit. When you assess the competence of all Civil Servants and Politicians when it comes to large scale change/ transformation skills and delivery experience, being diplomatic, I would say there is room for improvement
- Parliament doesn’t have the data, structure or where-with-all to hold the executive, and civil service to account for complex transformations – at the beginning of policy formulation or the delivery of policy benefits such as improved education, health care etc.
This is not to say that the Civil Service does not do many great things, solve many complex problems or does not have great talented people, it does. The question to be answered is, does the structure, roles, acountabilities and governmence of the Civil Service position it for success in the future, my assessment is no.
So what could we do that addresses the challenges detailed above yet builds on the existing strengths of the Civil Service and builds on some of the changes the coalition government have already introduced. A manifesto of ten changes that could be adopted by any political party!
- Split the Civil Service in two. One part for policy formulation. Governance as today with Permanent Secretaries supporting their Ministers to draft policy. Part two is all about policy execution, the transformation and the change to deliver the policies. Part two reports to the new CEO. Parts one and two report to the Cabinet Secretary.
- On part two the delivery is undertaken by delivery experts from within the overall public sector and the private sector. The heads of the big delivery arms are capable CEO’s in their own right. They are supported by external boards and non executives (a change already introduced to some extent by Francis Maude). They are rewarded on successful delivery of policy outcomes. They are not fettered by salary and package limitations. Their tenure may be limited to the life of the overall transformation they are charged with undertaking, but a pool of delivery experts should be maintained.
- On both parts undertake a full competence assessment of the Civil Servants. If you only have policy skills then you are assigned to part one. If you have more delivery (and appropriate experience) skills then you move to part two. For part one, reduce by 50% the number of employees and scrap all SCS 1 posts and flatten dramatically. You do not need three levels of Senior Civil Servant and many other grades for policy formulation. Part two should be structured using standard best practice for projects and programmes under the umbrella of a professional services company. The scale of change that you work on in part two is commensurate with your experience. i.e. you do not lead a £1bn transformation if you have only ever led a £1m project.
- As part of the “splitting” process asses the structure of all of the Ministries/departments – do we need so many, especially as we still do not have much money to spend on new “ideas”? Target a reduction of 50%, consider creating “super Ministries”. Less Ministries, less Ministers, less Permanent Secretaries, less policy officials. Create a Governance model that supports the Cabinet Secretary and Government to get visibility and control of all activity. The Cabinet Secretary, CEO, Key NED’s key Permanent Secretaries (2 or 3), plus lead Ministers from Treasury and Number 10. Scrap the Cabinet Office – devolve to other departments such as Treasury and Home Office but create a Prime Minister’s Office- well formalise the PMO as it exists already. Drive clarity of roles and accountability.
- When drafting policy it is done in three parts. What problem am I trying to solve (done by part one, the policy groups), how best to deliver the policy changes (done by part two, the delivery part) and overall benefits case done together. Both parts have to approve the Business Case.
- It is for Parliament to debate the policy change, it is for the oversight committees to debate and hold to account for delivery. As part of the scrutiny full Business Cases should be published as should all ongoing delivery documentation – from audit reports, to health checks to risk registers etc. Full transparency throughout the process.
- Parliamentary scrutiny committees should be revamped. Place on the committees experts from the field. It seems daft to me that a health committee does not have representatives from the health community on the committee – go for a third external experts. The NAO should focus on part two – is delivery on track, will delivery achieve the required policy outcomes agreed in the business case. Scrutiny committees should look to see how they can make the change successful not how best to ridicule the change.
- Treasury should reaffirm at budget time (when the Chancellor stands up and presents the budget) every year the list of projects/changes on the major project/change list. If Treasury do not think the policy is now valid, or the delivery is not likely to occur, they should formally implement detailed reviews, reduce funding or scrap the project/ transformation in part or in full. Funding for programmes/projects/ changes should be on the basis of on-track delivery. Agreed financial benefits should be pre-booked in recipients future budgets. If a department says via this change I will save £100m per annum that money should be deducted from their budgets in the appropriate year - no more HMT siting on the fence, less chance of padding in the business case!
- At the Cabinet Secretary level an overall Investment Review Board should formally review every business case. Agree with the Cabinet the priority of the changes – ensuring best resource is assigned to the most important change items. If projects/ changes cannot be resourced appropriately they should not be started at all.
- All corporate functions such as finance, HR, ICT, procurement should be shared services and delivered under part two – it’s not about policy it’s about delivery.
Whoever wins the next election will have many many challenges and having a Civil Service that has not fundamentally changed for decades will be a hinderence not a recipe for success. The time for transformation not tinkering is now. We should take the opportunity