So farewell, Sir Humphrey, by Tony Travers

1 Dec 05
The British civil service is rightly admired throughout the world, and yet everyone wants to 'reform' it. Tony Travers considers the skills that are needed for the thoroughly modern mandarin

02 December 2005

The British civil service is rightly admired throughout the world, and yet everyone wants to 'reform' it. Tony Travers considers the skills that are needed for the thoroughly modern mandarin

The civil service is a jewel in the crown of British democracy. For a century and a half it has offered one of the world's most corruption-free and apolitical ways of delivering government. It is a miracle, a wonder and a joy. We should all give praise for it.

And yet we don't, except when exposed to the dodgy officials who operate in many other countries. Much of the time, the civil service, in common with other parts of the bureaucracy, is assumed to be self-interested, inefficient and ripe for cuts. In the run-up to this year's general election, the Conservatives put forward proposals for Gershon-plus efficiencies with leader Michael Howard photographed against a backdrop of bowler-hatted officials.

Yes, Minister has much to answer for. 'Sir Humphrey', the anti-hero of the 1980s political satire, has entered British culture as a way of encapsulating an approach to government that is simultaneously wily, obscure and over-clever, but never quite dishonest. In much the same way as it is never possible to hear Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite without thinking of Frank Muir and Cadbury's fruit and nut chocolate, it is hard to escape Yes, Minister's picture of Whitehall.

The success of Sir Humphrey was down to the fact that there was more than a shred of truth in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's monstrous creation. Civil servants have for decades honed skills that ministers find useful, such as not quite telling the truth while not quite telling lies. Or, perhaps, inventing convincing ways of not doing things – or at least of delaying them.

Of course, Whitehall is only the instrument of its political masters. Civil servants act in the name of the government of the day. The silky skills of senior mandarins have been used by Labour and Conservative politicians alike to enact highly controversial policies. Rarely have officials been seen as 'political'. Indeed, it is in the professional interest of British civil servants to stay clear of accusations of bias. In this, they have been amazingly successful, even during long periods of near one-party government.

The Public Finance/Deloitte round table discussion held on November 21 raised many questions that might fairly be asked of a civil service that wants to improve the way it delivers government. How can 'generalist' officials be made more 'professional'? Would a mechanism akin to the local government Comprehensive Performance Assessments stimulate improvement in Whitehall? Should there be a single 'public service', embracing officials working in all parts of government?

Generalist experience in the civil service has allowed officials to be moved from department to department and from function to function with relative ease. Civil servants can be transferred from local government finance to transport policy, or from defence to pensions at various points of their career. But in much of the rest of the working world, increased professionalism and specialist skill have become the norm in many places. The civil service is now seeking to strengthen its skills base to sharpen its delivery capability.

By contrast, local government's top officials appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Council chief executives generally started their working lives as lawyers, accountants, social workers or other trained professionals. Job adverts for today's chief executives suggest they are now expected to be the ultimate generalists, combining an understanding of the skills of all the officers of a typical authority with the need to manage partnerships, act as a diplomat and, increasingly, to develop local democracy. Indeed, local government chief executives have arguably become the most 'rounded' of all public officials, partly because they must deal with national and strategic issues in parallel with local and immediate ones.

Any contemporary discussion of the future of the civil service will inevitably raise the question of how to compare central government officials with those in other sectors. Local authority chief executives, with their burgeoning salaries, are now objects of envy for senior civil servants. But it is also possible that the need to combine the wide range of skills and competencies necessary to run a big city, county or London authority are more impressive than the ones that have traditionally been prized in Whitehall.

Thus there is little doubt that civil servants need to adapt to a complex world where it is necessary to spend part of their time in meetings with grandees discussing matters of state, and then to move effortlessly to dealing with the public and their hour-by-hour demands for service output. The increased openness and accessibility of the modern civil service (and, indeed, local government) means delivery problems are more likely now than in the past to weigh heavily on the minds of officials at all levels.

Just how civil servants can be equipped for their new roles is still not clear. Sir Richard Mottram's Government Skills Board is the current key source of expertise and advice for changing the way officials develop. But it is clear that there is no certainty as to what the end-point of this process will be. There is no simple spectrum from 'generalist' to 'professional' for civil servants to move along. After all, the so-called general skills are themselves highly prized – particularly in Whitehall. Moreover, as observed above, other parts of the state might actually be moving away from single-service expertise.

The demands for 'joined-up' public services might be thought to require new kinds of generalist skill, in particular a capacity to understand enough about several different elements of government to be able to stop them operating in a fractured and inconsistent way. Perhaps there is a hint here of the best way for officials to develop their careers: progress should be marked by taking account of a civil servant's capacity to use departmental or agency resources to deliver outcomes that, in part, are not unique to a particular service.

Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell has raised the question of whether a CPA-type measure should be evolved for Whitehall departments. Departmental Capability Reviews and other possible measures will be used to provide benchmarks. Although this subject is dealt with in detail on other pages, it is worth briefly considering the wider issue of whether a CPA – or something similar – could prompt improvement in Whitehall services.

There is little doubt that the local government CPA, however controversial and occasionally unpopular, has put pressure on councils to improve. There might be quibbles about an individual council's CPA score, but the difference between 'excellent' and 'poor' authorities cannot be denied. Councillors and officers in 'weak' and 'poor' authorities undoubtedly feel under pressure to up their game. Why should things be so different for Whitehall?

Senior officials point to massive variations in scale between mega-institutions such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work & Pensions and minnows such as Culture, Media and Sport. By contrast, it is argued, there are whole classes of authorities of broadly the same size. In fact, this argument (against the possibility of dealing with different kinds of institution) is largely answered by the very real differences in scale between, say, Birmingham City Council and Transport for London and some of the smaller city and metropolitan authorities. CPAs can be applied to any scale of organisation.

What was sauce for the council goose can surely be sauce for the Whitehall gander. It must be possible to evolve measures of departmental performance that are analogous to the CPA. Such measures need to be comprehensible to the public and media. That is, they should be distilled to a single word, running across a scale from 'excellent' to 'poor'. However uncomfortable such a simple system might be for ministers, they have happily used it on local authorities, NHS trusts and other public bodies.

The arguments for a single 'public service', embracing public servants from all sectors of state activity, would be a massive step for Britain. It might reduce the gap between civil servants and others, such as local authority officials who currently operate in largely separate worlds. The possibility of having a career that spanned Whitehall, the NHS, local government and, with luck, the private sector would surely be increased. It would then be possible to avoid a plethora of different public sector training institutions.

However, there would be powerful vested and professional interests ranged against such a change. Nevertheless, Sir Michael Bichard, who is a powerful proponent of the idea of a single public service, pointed during the round table to the lack of a convincing argument against a reform of this kind.

The Public Finance/Deloitte event provided evidence that there is still overwhelming confidence in the British civil service. Debate was generally about improving the operation of an institution that has high standards of probity and that remains above party politics. Interestingly, the vexed question of a Civil Service Act was not raised. On the other hand, there was consideration of the issue of how to provide incentives for change.

For change there will undoubtedly be. Britain is about to enter a period of slower public spending growth and a more unpredictable economy. Ministers and opposition parties will be demanding ever-higher standards from public services at a time when there will be less growth in real terms. In some services, there will be cuts. In such a world, the achievement of annual efficiency targets and demands for the avoidance of major procurement fiascos will become the norm – even more than in the past.

Recent revelations about the modest scale of Whitehall's achievements in the light of Sir Peter Gershon's efficiency review (virtually no fall in total civil service numbers) and Sir Michael Lyons' relocation review (little movement from the Southeast) suggest that existing skills and performance in central government have not been enough to give the chancellor the results he wants.

The civil service is the starting point for the implementation of almost any government initiative. Modern politicians at the core of Whitehall appear determined to deliver new policies and to provide ceaseless evidence of action. As a result of such initiatives and the demands of a complex modern society, it is unlikely that a Gordon Brown or David Cameron/David Davis government would be much different to a Tony Blair one. It is in everyone's interests that the civil service is improved.

The most interesting unanswered question is: how, if at all, can the public be involved in the process of Whitehall reform? The need to deliver visible improvements in public service outcomes obsesses senior ministers and their permanent secretaries. If the public met more senior mandarins (and vice versa), it is possible that trust and understanding in government would be improved. Britain is a centralised democracy. There are good arguments for a more fully accessible and active civil service. Perhaps this should be the next step for the modernisers.

Tony Travers is the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics