What the civil service thinks of the coalition’s direction of travel

I have just surveyed 1,395 civil servants about their opinions of public service reform. What are the key capabilities that departments must improve? What civil service strengths are most at risk? What do they make of key government policies, including localism and transparency? And do they agree that it should be easier to remove poor performing civil servants?

It’s probably my best piece of work. Hope you like it.

And so it came to pass…

A couple of years ago, I was passed a draft policy document that set out plans to outsource civil service training and shut the National School of Government.

It has just happened, exactly as predicted.

Open Data – it ain’t that easy

The coalition government is keen to give away more public sector data in an effort to stimulate the economy, something dubbed ‘open data.’

I caught up with Vanessa Lawrence, chief executive of Ordnance Survey, to find out what her public sector trading fund thinks of the proposals. OS already gives some of its data for free, but she’s worried that if it gives any more away, it won’t be able to afford to gather the data in the first place – with pretty wide-reaching consequences.

If you’re interested in the discussions around open data, you can read the full interview here.

Maude vs the Civil Service – Fast Stream reform

Recently, I obtained a letter to civil servants that outlined some internal discussions in Whitehall over how the civil service should look in the future – in particular, how it trains the next generation of mandarins. Maude wants to radically reform the Fast Stream graduate programme, but his ideas aren’t universally popular amongst senior civil servants, who are concerned by some of the practical implications of his plans.

Thinking more about the topic, I decided it was ripe for an expansive feature. I examined each of Maude’s proposals in turn (set out in the letter) and sought comment and comparison from HR experts, private companies, and of course, civil servants. I also spoke to the chief executive of HMRC, Lin Homer, who is leading the reform efforts. She explained the ongoing discussions, and the compromise plans that are being examined. My pieces were sent to all civil service Fast Streamers to give them the full low-down, which I was rather chuffed by.

Finally, I caught up with Maude a couple of weeks ago, and he set out his new thinking on how the scheme should operate.

Darling: A decade of stagnation

I’ve decided to use this blog as a place to showcase some of the interviews and features that I’ve written for Civil Service World over the past few years. First up is an interview with Alistair Darling, which was written at the later part of last year. I knew little about economics past the A Level I sat in it yonks ago, so I felt a bit like a geeky version of Rocky Balboa when I spent the weeks leading up to this interview reminding myself of basic concepts, memorising key vocabulary and reading relevant texts – including, of course, Darling’s own book.

He was pretty strong in suggesting that we are on track for a decade of economic stagnation, although – as with other interviews he’s given – this view now seems to have been commonly accepted.

As befits a CSW interview, we went quite in-depth into the principles of public administration and his method of governing – something that was notably different from his predecessor Gordon Brown, and his successor George Osborne. He identifies problems with Brown’s approach, and how his closed working-style went on to cause chaos at Number 10 (“there was just so much going wrong”). As for Osborne, a senior civil servant in the Treasury recently painted a picture of Osborne’s management style that seems to build on Darling’s model of actively involving his civil servants, but takes it one step further: Osborne pushes them to challenge his Conservative manifesto commitments. Not what I expected of him, but something that his biographers will doubtless examine in much detail.

Filling the Harley-shaped holes

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It was announced yesterday that government’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), Joe Harley, is leaving at the end of the financial year. This is something of a shock, because Harley has been heralded as the man who will transform government’s IT fortunes. It’s also quite concerning because his own department, DWP, has a very large IT system that needs to be in place by 2013, and Harley will leave before the system is fully developed.

People come and go, but Harley’s departure highlights a structural problem, namely, the appointment of one official to do two (or more) roles. Harley is chief information officer for government and for DWP. This approach has also been mirrored in HR, with Chris Last performing the job for government and again for DWP. And the new head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, is also permanent secretary of DCLG.

Indeed, when cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell announced his departure, it took three people to replace him. Many experts have suggested that splitting the role is a problem, but isn’t it more concerning that some senior officials have so many responsibilities that their position can actually be split into a number of full-time jobs? If someone has so many responsibilities, how can they all be pursued with the time and effort they deserve?

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is looking at what the future civil service will do. It would be wise for him to consider how many roles one official can be expected to have.

First published on the Civil Service Live Network

Do new MPs struggle to properly scrutinise policies?

Dame Anne Begg is a wonderful person to interview: she is insightful, incisive, and good company.

Begg chairs the work and pensions select committee, and as well as talking about how media pressure caused her to become Parliament’s leading welfare policy expert because she is wheelchair bound, she discussed some of the troubles that new MPs have with scrutinising government policies. In particular: her committee is predominantly made up of MPs who are “still finding their feet… [and] what their role as an MP is”, Begg says. This is affecting the quality of their scrutiny: “Inevitably, when you come in as a brand new government, you’re going to think that everything your side is doing is wonderful; and when you come in as the opposition, you’re going to think the other side is dreadful,” she explains.

It’s a striking comment, but also worth chewing over. With the coalition pushing policies through at a frightful pace, are the freshly minted backbench MPs who often make up the membership of select committees ensuring that policy is well-formulated? Read the full interview here

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