A civil service fit for the future

Civil Service

May 1
16:06 2018

Thank you for inviting me back to the Institute for Government on the topic of transformation of the Civil Service.

I made one of my first speeches here as Chief Executive, a little over three years ago.

And its fair to say, I think youll agree, that quite a lot has happened since then.

Weve had two changes of government, weve had the EU referendum - on the back of which weve created from scratch, and staffed, two new departments. One of which, the Department for Exiting the European Union, is coordinating the work of more than 300 Brexit-related work streams across government.

I should take this opportunity to thank Philip Rycroft and his team who run DExEU and who are doing a fantastic job and deserve our collective thanks for that work.

Back in 2015 I made the observation that Civil Servants were brilliant, talented people, doing too much. Not much has changed!

But I also made four specific observations:

First, that as a result of progressively outsourcing delivery the Civil Service had evolved to focus mainly on policy-making. Our policy strength will always be important, but we had lost much of our capability to implement and deliver policies and services.

Second, that while the fiscal envelope was continuing to shrink, the standard efficiency drive had run its course - to get to the next level of efficiency, while at the same time improving the effectiveness of service delivery, we needed a more fundamental transformation of how we worked as a Civil Service.

Third, that we needed to begin to break down the silos that existed, learn to work across boundaries, and take a more collaborative approach.

Lastly, I said that we needed to move our leadership approach on from a focus on pure intellect to one that embraced depth of experience: from elegant explanations to delivered solutions.

And I then set out four priorities to address these observations, aimed at setting us up to be fit for the 21st century:

  1. Increase the numbers of people in Whitehall with delivery skills, and to offer clear career pathways so that they would feel valued, and could build their experience within the Civil Service
  2. Develop functional leadership across government
  3. Build our planning and performance management capability
  4. Evolve the model of leadership in the Civil Service, developing a pipeline of credible, confident, and experienced leaders.

The second of those priorities, functional leadership, is integral to delivering all of the others.

And I want to return to it now to provide some context for the Institutes series on this and to reflect on our progress to date.

Because we havent stood still.

We now have 9 core cross-government functions, each with a dedicated, experienced leader, and championed at Permanent Secretary level. These are complemented by dozens of professional networks that connect civil servants right across government, from the Operational Delivery Profession - our largest - with more than 240,000 civil servants, to the International Trade Profession - our newest - which launches today.

These advances are important. I believed then, as I do now, that deploying professional expertise across the system through a functional structure is the only way to tackle the transformation needed to meet the requirements of being both more efficient and more effective.

And since then - we have Brexit. Its been said before, but this is the biggest, most complex peacetime task the Civil Service has faced.

The challenge is not a distraction, or a substitute for other priorities, it is an opportunity; and one we must seize.

Because at the same time as the task of delivering Britains EU exit strengthens the argument for strong functional leadership, it also provides an opportunity to accelerate the changes were already making, to implement the complex tasks ahead.

To remind you I believe the functions have 3 primary roles:

First, to set standards - because:

  • without a consistent approach to working with the private sector every contract is different
  • without a consistent approach to cyber security - its every department for themselves
  • without consistency of pay structures theres arbitrage across departmental boundaries
  • without consistent data standards there are no linkages between departments
  • without consistent technology standards in buildings, it sometimes isnt even possible for visiting employees from one department to log-on in another departmental building

Second, functions have a leading role in building skills and capability; because:

  • Ive said many times we need to build professionalism and experience back into the Civil Service
  • making shared services work needs people who have done it before
  • building sophisticated and flexible relationships with the private sector needs experienced commercial people - to move us on from the transactional, price-based relationships that still exist across parts of our system
  • we need to have people with technical and data skills as we increasingly engage with citizens in a digital world
  • and we need proper project management skills to undertake the complex projects the Civil Service is now involved in

And, third, functions help to shape cross-government strategies, because:

  • we needed to see the multiple connections a company like Carillion had across government, so that we were able to respond to that situation and protect public services in the way that we did - something that would simply not have been possible even two or three years ago
  • we need to have mechanisms for building careers and developing our people to be the best they can be and that needs cross-government coordination
  • we need to have consistency in how we build new digital systems because of the efficiencies and economies that come from having common platforms
  • we need to bring multiple departments into the same buildings - not just for the sake of economy - but for better, smarter, more collaborative working
  • and we need to have common ways of doing the transaction process, so that we can benefit from the huge economies of scale that government can bring to bear; to do otherwise would be such a waste of taxpayers money

Seen through these lenses the appeal of the functional model seems obvious.

But historically we havent been set up like that. And to make it so is not a quick fix.

We have to build professional pathways to attract people to join the Civil Service and plan their careers to give them the experience they need over time; and that is now starting to happen.

We have to begin to value new skills in our leaders. Intellect alone is no longer enough we need more because otherwise the system wont be able to support the the implementation challenges we face today.

We need to learn new ways of working because a cross-government matrix structure in itself is new and it has to add value to what went before. And that takes time to learn and skilled people to implement it.

And, of course, at the same time we must continue to deliver services that meet the standards and convenience citizens have come to expect as 21st century consumers.

So, transforming what we deliver means transforming how we deliver it.

And that delivery needs the skills and experience I have described.

Returning to the current challenges of Brexit, and the need to use this moment as an opportunity to accelerate - it demands that we both think through a complex set of problems and deliver the solutions on the ground within a fixed time period.

We cant do that unless we approach this challenge differently to the way we have done things in the past.

And the good news is, its already happening - we are accelerating the changes we need and they are helping us to deliver what we need to deliver.

To take just a few examples where we are leveraging the functional structure in that task:

In commercial:

  • many of the Brexit-related projects require multiple new contracts and procurements - we are already using commercial teams to help structure those for maximum effectiveness in the market
  • we are setting up ways of accessing skills in the market that will deliver right cross government not just department by department

In technology:

  • many Brexit projects require new technology in one form or another, and those systems are being built to our new digital standards, in agile ways with new and different partners, allowing an iterative development process
  • even three years ago that would not have happened - because we didnt have the digital skills or awareness in-house to do it

In project leadership:

  • we have a group of experienced project leaders, many of whom have been trained through our Major Projects leadership programmes, and are now being deployed into the most complex Brexit projects
  • These are the leaders who will help us get projects through the difficult gap between designing a policy and putting it into action - as Tony Meggs has called it recently, the Valley of Death

This is all work in progress. But we have come a long way in a short time.

Its a fact that we dont have all the implementation skills that we need in-house but we are building them quickly and we have hired more than 5,000 people into 8 departments over the last 12 months in order to help.

And we are using the current imperatives to accelerate new

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