A CPA for the civil service, by Sir Gus ODonnell

20 Oct 05
For years, people have been asking why central government is not subject to the same rigorous performance assessments as the rest of the public sector. Well, now Whitehall's turn has come

21 October 2005

For years, people have been asking why central government is not subject to the same rigorous performance assessments as the rest of the public sector. Well, now Whitehall's turn has come

I've often heard the argument raised that if performance management is right for local authorities, schools and hospitals, why isn't it right for Whitehall?

I would start by answering that, from my time in the Treasury and now as Cabinet secretary, I've seen a real culture change over the past few years. Rigour, accountability and performance management are now common currency across Whitehall. Public Service Agreements, the Efficiency Programme and Gateway Reviews all show a Whitehall that is focused on outcomes and committed to sharpening its performance.

And that is why I — and my permanent secretary colleagues —think this is the right time to go further, with Departmental Capability Reviews. These are aimed at improving the capability of the civil service to meet today's objectives — and, crucially, to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow.

So these reviews will be grounded in real challenges. They will probe how well departments are equipped to deal with them. I will expect the reviews to ask the difficult questions that really affect delivery — how effective is departmental governance? Is there real leadership within the department, focused on strategic priorities rather than crisis management? Does the delivery chain ensure ministers' priorities are carried out efficiently and effectively — or does it just add needless bureaucracy?

And I want review teams of credible and hard-hitting experts, internal and external to government, to ask these questions, get answers and build solutions with the department and the centre.

I want this to be a transparent process, open to public scrutiny. So the outcomes will be published. And they will contain hard-edged evidence about performance that will enable me to call permanent secretaries to account.

I have asked the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit to develop and run the review process. This will make the link with delivery explicit. It will also build on the unit's track record of working with departments to provide both challenge and support.

So what difference will this make? Most fundamentally, these reviews are here to improve the departments' work. The quality of leadership, strategic thinking and customer focus within a department has a real impact on its ability to deliver directly to customers and to provide system leadership to organisations. And I think there will be other positive outcomes.

Publishing more information about performance will help raise public confidence in government. The review process itself will help to improve the leadership group within government, as individual civil service leaders are challenged to improve or build up their experience as members of review teams. Good practice will flow more freely between departments. I want the reviews to produce sustainable improvement and culture change — just as we have seen in local government following Comprehensive Performance Assessments.

I am sure we can learn from both the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission about good practice in the area of assessment and audit. Civil service performance and capability is my responsibility and it is one that I intend to embrace with these reviews. Open outcomes, significant external involvement in the review process and ongoing engagement with good practice will ensure that this isn't 'Whitehall reviewing Whitehall', but a rigorous process. It will be tailored to fit the diverse range of government departments — from Culture & Sport with 500 people, to the 100,000-plus in Work & Pensions and Revenue & Customs — and focused on sustainable improvement.

We are developing a process to pilot from the end of this year. I will be paying very close attention to this. I want to make sure it adds value, not bureaucracy; and increases openness, not defensiveness. Most importantly, it must have the confidence of those involved, within Whitehall and beyond. And I will certainly be open to looking at different approaches if the evidence suggests this is required.

So, by this time next year, I want to be able to return to the public administration select committee, where I announced this initiative last week, and be able to detail real outcomes. By then I expect at least six departments to have been reviewed, with an action plan to roll out the process to the rest of Whitehall in the following year.

For the early adopters, I will expect by then to be seeing real improvements in areas where performance and capability gaps were identified. Examples of good practice should also be making an impact in other departments. And the outcomes of the reviews should be informing the performance management of permanent secretaries and senior staff.

Then those who have argued for years that Whitehall should be more open, transparent and accountable will agree that this process meets that challenge.

Sir Gus O'Donnell is the Cabinet secretary