Government ‘must accelerate Whitehall reforms’

7 Sep 17

The government must accelerate its ambitious reforms to modernise the civil service and back this with increased funding, the Institute for Government has stated.

Today’s Professionalising Whitehall report from the independent think-tank warns that with increasing pressures on public services and the challenge of Brexit it is more important than ever that efforts to revamp how government works succeed.

Researchers from the IfG said that major government projects – like Universal Credit, the InterCity West Coast franchise competition or the electronic tagging of offenders - failed because key activities, from contract management to the design of digital services, were not performed properly.

Julian McCrae, report author and deputy director of the IfG, said: “The government cannot afford more mistakes on such important reforms. There are huge pressures on the public sector, which will only increase as the UK leaves the European Union.

“Our report highlights a number of key obstacles facing all specialisms which civil service leaders have to address. Senior decision makers in government departments need to understand, demand and make better use of the professional support and services offered by specialists.”

Turnover of leadership, constraints on civil service leaders, lack of resources and stable funding where all identified by the think-tank as things holding back reform.

The report states “policy and to some extent legal and finance, have small, under resourced teams responsible for driving reforms” and “long-term planning in specialisms such as commercial, and to some extent policy and legal, is undermined by a lack of guaranteed funding from one year to the next.”

The IfG also pointed to a lack of specialist skills and a failure to make use of existing talent for one of the reasons previous schemes have faltered.

Today’s study welcomed work done since 2013 to professionalise policymaking, financial management, commercial procurement and contract management into new cross-departmental specialisms but states more needs to be done.

Darra Singh, UK Government and Public Sector leader at EY, said it was encouraging that the civil service was making progress in using innovative technologies such as robotics, blockchain and artificial intelligence which he said would free up capacity to get on top of Brexit and wider reform.

Singh added: “Greater professionalism can come about through a focus on becoming a more attractive employer.

“Learning lessons from the private sector in terms of working environment, a commitment to diversity and flexible working will help to bring in talent with the requisite skills and technical expertise.”

The IfG urge the government to focus on the following priorities:

 •            Better integrate specialists into departmental decision making;

•             Enable people from all specialisms to reach top leadership positions in the civil service;

•             Bring together the separate reform plans of the specialisms so they can be better coordinated; and

•             Introduce more stable funding.

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