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Whitehall ‘ready to adapt and survive’

By Richard Johnstone | 6 September 2012

Tony Blair tried it and still has the scars on his back. Now the coalition is having a go at reforming Whitehall. Civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake tells Richard Johnstone why this time it will work

Sir Bob Kerslake
Photo: Akin Falope
Setting out his plans for the civil service, the prime minister was clear. ‘Radical reform’ was needed in the way government works to ensure Whitehall was ‘fit for the task’ to ‘help people through changing times’.

To do this, the principal challenge was ‘to shift the focus from policy advice to delivery’, and be ‘quick to adapt to new times, working in partnership with others’, he said. ‘If we want the civil service to be more entrepreneurial, to be more adventurous like their private sector counterparts, we have to loosen up.’

These were not David Cameron’s words when he launched the Civil Service Reform Plan on June 19, but Tony Blair’s in 2004 - demonstrating the long-term difficulty of reforming Whitehall.

Cameron, too, called on the government machine to be ‘more agile, more focused on delivery and on getting results’.

Like Blair, he looked to the example of the private sector, saying: ‘When companies live or die on their ability to deliver, that gives them an urgency that we can learn from in government, for the good of those we serve.’

But Cameron will be hoping that, unlike his predecessor, his reforms won’t be diluted and left to wither on the vine of good intentions.

Just weeks after the current prime minister set out his vision, Public Finance secured an exclusive interview with Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service and the man charged with overseeing its implementation.

Kerslake admits that there is scepticism among civil servants over whether the plans will be introduced successfully, but insists he will see them through.

‘People have seen reform plans come and go and they’re interested to know “can we deliver this?” We intend to deliver this, that’s why it’s been structured as a set of priority actions, which we know we can do.’

Kerslake, like many of his fellow CIPFA members, cut his teeth in local government. Before joining the civil service, he had been chief executive of two local authorities: the London Borough of Hounslow and Sheffield City Council.

With his broader perspective, is he confident that there is the capacity and willingness to change within the corridors of Whitehall?

‘[There’s] a sense of really substantial talent, a real capability, both at the policy level and at the operational level’, he tells PF. But there are also ‘some areas that we need to improve if we’re going to meet the challenges that we face now and in the future’.

He adds: ‘There are a lot of strengths we should not lose sight of, but it’s important to recognise that the challenges we face are quite unprecedented, so the civil service itself has to adapt to meet those challenges.’

Among the reforms is more rigorous appraisal of staff. The bottom-performing 10% of senior civil servants will be identified and face leaving the service if their performance doesn’t improve.

The proposals also intend to strengthen ‘key capabilities’, including government’s commercial and contracting skills, to prepare for ‘a world where more services are commissioned from outside’. This is in line with the coalition’s Open Public Services agenda, which anticipates greater use of competition.

However, the plan is being implemented against a backdrop of a 23% reduction in the number of civil servants over the five years to 2015.

So has the plan been designed with the shrinking civil service in mind, or does it set out ambitions that pay no heed to head count? ‘Truthfully, I think it’s a bit of both,’ says Kerslake.

‘There’s some things in the plan that would have made sense whatever size the civil service was, but I think the fact that we’re reducing puts a much higher emphasis on it. You would want a good performance management system however big you are, but when you’re smaller every person really has to count in the delivery of what you’re doing.’

Colin Talbot, professor of public policy and management at University of Manchester Business School, agrees the reforms are based on ‘stuff that they have to do regardless of austerity’. However, he adds: ‘Austerity makes it key to find ways to make the civil service work better.’
In particular, Talbot backs the plan’s objective to improve the civil service’s commissioning skills. ‘They have to get more people with experience of what happens in the world involved in the policy formation stage, so policies have a chance of working,’ he says.

‘We have got to know what the lie of the land is, what will work and what won’t when we formulate the policy.’

Kerslake says his experience from local government is that, ‘properly done’, commissioned services can be transformational.

His time running town halls showed him ‘plenty of examples of positive change being delivered’ this way. The main lesson, he says, is that ‘first of all, you need a very clear idea of what you’re seeking to commission’.
He observes that commissioning is often confused with procurement. ‘It’s not the same thing. You’ve absolutely got to be clear about what the goals of your commissioning process are.

‘Secondly, it does require people with skills. It’s not something anyone can pick up, and quite often those skills are in quite short supply really. And I think, thirdly, you absolutely need to sort out how the relationship is going to work beyond the process of doing the commissioning.’

Changes in the way government services are provided are also picking up pace across government. The reform plan calls on the Cabinet Office to complete, by October this year, a review to identify further changes that could be implemented in this Parliament.

If there are doubts about the speed of change, James Page, programme director at the Institute for Government, says this explicit target will be a barometer of whether reforms are taking place.

However, Page adds that commissioning poses unique problems for Whitehall.

He agrees with Kerslake that commissioning isn’t procurement and needs to meet a more complex range of objectives. ‘It’s a whole different skill that government is going to have to build, and can’t just replicate from elsewhere. You have to build these skills at the same time as money is coming out of the civil service for training.’

Page also warns that the government could struggle to retain skilled staff once they gain experience.

‘One of the things that government finds is that they struggle to pay market rates for the skills. The better government gets, the harder it will be to hold on to the people,’ he says.

Despite these challenges, Kerslake is certain the reforms make up ‘a good plan the civil service can get behind’. To date, they have been ‘very positively’ received.

He adds: ‘People recognise that the plan does pick up issues that they’ve talked about – from frustrations at some of the core equipment and facilities to the need to tackle underperformance. That comes as strongly from civil servants as it does from the top.’

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