Whitehall focus DWP surprise choice for capability reviews

2 Feb 06
Whitehall's under-fire Department for Work and Pensions will be asked to produce an improvement plan this summer after being picked to pilot Sir Gus O'Donnell's capability reviews.

03 February 2006

Whitehall's under-fire Department for Work and Pensions will be asked to produce an improvement plan this summer after being picked to pilot Sir Gus O'Donnell's capability reviews.

The DWP, described last week as 'in crisis', will have its core functions reviewed by the prime minister's Delivery Unit to decide how fit it is to deliver governm ent objectives, such as the welfare reform programme.

Depending on the results of the exercise, which will assess the DWP's leadership, strategy and delivery capabilities, senior staff could be asked to implement a radical improvement plan.

The DWP will be joined in the first wave of Departmental Capability Reviews by the Home Office and the smaller Department for Constitutional Affairs, as O'Donnell formalises plans to make Whitehall more outward-looking and focused on the provision of public services.

If the first wave proves successful, all 17 of Whitehall's major departments will be reviewed by summer 2007.

The selection of the DWP, announced by O'Donnell on January 27, surprised some Whitehall insiders. The department has been plagued by problems with low staff morale following the 2004 Gershon review, which requires the DWP to make efficiency savings of £1bn annually by 2008. Last week, there was a 48-hour strike over plans to axe 30,000 jobs.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services civil service union, last week claimed the efficiency agenda had hindered the department's ability to deliver benefit services, and that the job cuts had forced staff to work the overtime equivalent to 9,000 full-time jobs.

The DWP has also been plagued by problems at its Child Support Agency, which has left a backlog of 250,000 payments to single parents and thousands of incorrect payments. Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton is expected to announce plans to tackle these shortly.

Last week, the National Audit Office qualified the department's accounts for the sixteenth year running, amid concerns over benefit fraud and error. A recent internal survey of staff attitudes also found that confidence in senior managers has plummeted.

However, Leigh Lewis, the DWP's new permanent secretary, told Public Finance: 'We believe the DWP to be a well-performing department but the review will give us the opportunity to look systematically at where our capabilities could be further improved.'

The Cabinet Office said the DWP had not been chosen because of a perceived need to improve, but because it 'provided the first wave of DCRs with a mix of smaller and larger organisations that use a variety of external partners to deliver services'.

The DWP is Whitehall's largest organisation, employing around 120,000 staff.

However, one Whitehall source said there were concerns at 'the highest levels' over lingering DWP problems.

O'Donnell said: 'One of my personal priorities is to improve the capability of the civil service. We need strong values, a strong culture and stronger capability to get the dynamism we need.'

Shorter sharper standards code for all civil servants

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell plans to reduce the emphasis on the constitutional role of senior civil servants in the civil service code and focus instead on revised standards expected of all Whitehall staff.

O'Donnell published a new, shorter draft civil service code on January 27, reinforcing Whitehall's historical values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality in the context of modern government.

But, in line with his wider focus on improving public services generally and backed by Whitehall's civil service commissioners, he has made subtle changes to the code that should make it 'clearer and more relevant' for all employees. In line with this, the four-page document is, he argued, 'deliberately written in more everyday language'.

The new code states explicitly that it forms part of every civil servant's employment contract — meaning all staff literally sign up to it. There is also a greater emphasis on civil servants working with and for the public: a clear attempt to reduce Whitehall's insular reputation.

It also reveals plans to allow civil servants to go directly to a civil service commissioner with complaints. Previous arrangements allowed commissioners to deal with complaints once other options had been explored.

A spokesman for the Office of the Civil Service Commissioners told Public Finance: 'The code was ten years old… and there was a feeling that it was perhaps too heavily focused on the constitutional role of the senior civil service, for example by outlining in detail their responsibilities, and lines of accountability, to ministers.

'This new code places more emphasis on the wider civil service. It is very much “bottom up” – focused on what the expectations and core values of staff in Jobcentre Plus offices, for example, will be.'


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