How to mould the Civil Service to deliver Strategy.

 

A submission to the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons

By

Rt Hon the Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG

The fundamental business of Government is to craft and deliver strategy in the long-term interests of the British people, steered by the outcomes of general elections. However, the strategic shocks of recent years have exposed significant weaknesses in Whitehall strategy-making and delivery, while underscoring the failure of Civil Service reform in response to multiple reviews over several decades.

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Our governance system falls increasingly short in a world characterised by connectedness, complexity, uncertainty and rapid change. The UK faces many overlapping challenges to its security and prosperity that demand a strategic approach, from growing domestic inequality to climate change, the impact of AI, and the global role and assertiveness of China. Past successes such as the counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST) and the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine have demonstrated what is possible, given political will and effective structures, processes and relationships. The latter example also highlights the role of the wider executive branch beyond Ministers and Civil Servants, whether members of the Armed Forces or senior executives of the NHS.[1]

Our collective experiences have identified the need for a change in power, culture, skills and processes within Whitehall—one that harnesses politicians’ role, more properly positions the Cabinet Office as a driver of action, addresses the Treasury’s counterproductive focus on fiscal control, accounts for the realities of Devolution, and embeds leadership, strategic thinking and corporate professionalism within Government. Parliament also has a critical role to play: its scrutiny can reinforce Government efforts towards the rigorous, iterative strategy-making and delivery that are essential to UK national interests.

‘Rolls-Royce machine’: ill-suited to the 21st century and resistant to upgrades

The Civil Service benefits from talented people who have chosen public service over other professions. Since 2016, they have worked within and delivered significant shifts in UK policy while navigating political instability. These shifts have shone a light on British governance—from central government to devolved, regional and local systems—prompting a swathe of critiques and recommendations for reform, including by the Government. Such critiques directly echo past reviews dating from the 1960s. They include:

Most striking are the views of former Ministers and Senior Civil Servants (SCS) cited in Reform’s recent report on barriers to Whitehall reform.[2] These interviewees were well-placed to drive change when in post. Yet they felt unable, disinclined or unobligated to implement the types and scale of reform necessary to ensure effective strategy-making and delivery in the UK’s long-term interest.

Civil Servants deserve better than to operate within a governance system that is much less than the sum of its parts. Ministers should be able to implement and reorientate their programme in pursuit of the British interest (and re-election). The public deserves a system in which Ministers, other elected representatives and officials together navigate uncertainty towards long-term objectives, routinely drawing on the best available knowledge and skill inside and outside of Government.

Recommended actions for the Government and Parliament

Recent papers on Civil Service reform have proposed radical machinery-of-government solutions, such as the break-up of the Cabinet Office and/or HM Treasury.[3] This paper does not address their merits or viability. Nor does it address the role of ‘systems thinking’—an important concept that the Committee should also consider. Instead, it proposes a number of more limited changes on the assumption that these are more likely to succeed—whether standing alone or as part of more fundamental change. Our seventeen recommendations for action are set out in the Appendix, supported by a fuller discussion of the issues.


Appendix

What follows is divided into sections for accessibility, although there is overlap between the issues and resultant recommendations.

  1. Political contribution to effective Government strategy and Civil Service reform
  2. Cabinet Office leadership and grip on strategy and delivery
  3. Role of HM Treasury
  4. Embedding strategic and delivery processes and capability within Government
  5. Rebuilding policy expertise within Government
  6. Role of Devolved Administrations
  7. Reinforcing a focus on strategy and delivery through parliamentary accountability

Political contribution to effective Government strategy and Civil Service reform

It has been argued that Civil Servants are best placed to lead internal reform, with ‘outsider’ Ministers involved only in agreeing a general direction and that resources should be diverted from political priorities to fund the endeavour. This proposition ignores:

In short, the step-change needed in Civil Service capability and the pursuit of constant renewal as ‘business as usual’ will require sustained political capital to succeed. It will also require MPs (as current or potential future Ministers) to better understand how UK-wide governance works in practice, and to adopt and drive a change in strategic culture.

Recommendation 1: Recognising Ministers’ role in driving strategic thinking in Government and that of MPs in scrutinising Government strategy and resourcing, political parties should work with the House of Commons and other authorities to establish an induction in UK-wide governance to be delivered to all new MPs after a general election. MPs and other elected officials should also attend a ‘School for Government’ alongside Civil Servants, to learn the shared language, doctrine and skills of leadership and strategy (see Recommendation 3). 

Recommendation 2: Recognising the re-election imperative of Civil Service reform, political parties should make a shared commitment in their manifestos to a step-change in Civil Service capability within four years of entering Government. After the election, the reform programme should be:

Cabinet Office leadership and grip on strategy and delivery

It is widely considered that the leadership provided by, and the division of responsibility within, the Cabinet Office is ineffective.[5] IfG has described the system as “the worst of all worlds: a highly centralised system of government without the capacity to organise it from the centre.” One former Cabinet Secretary told Reform he could “barely find a lever that was connected to anything”.[6]

A change in power and culture is needed within Whitehall. The Cabinet Office should be the ‘mover’ rather than the ‘shaker’. Civil Servants should think ‘governmental’ and long term, rather than ‘departmental’ and short term. Although the Commission for Smart Government and Reform proposed restructuring the centre of Government, it is possible to improve the centre’s ability to direct and ensure cross-government delivery of strategy within existing departmental structures. Doing so means:

Recommendation 3: The Government should establish a ‘School for Government’ through which to build a culture of leadership among politicians and officials (equivalent to SEO and above) from across the UK governance system and to develop the mindset, skills, shared language and doctrine that are essential to strategy-making and delivery. In doing so, it should learn from the UK’s Staff Colleges, which teach ‘mission command’ and the delegation of responsibility and risk down the reporting chain based on trust.

Recommendation 4: The Government should systematise the Strategy (S)/Operations (X) delineation of Cabinet Committees (as per the EU Exit and the Covid-19 Committees). The former would meet relatively infrequently to consider longer-term direction and risks that may knock the Government off course, while the latter would meet frequently to thrash out short-term issues.[7] Where persistent operational problems impinge on delivery, these would be elevated to Committee (S) for consideration against the agreed strategy.

Recommendation 5: Learning from the Vaccines Taskforce, the Government should establish a limited number of cross-cutting missions that are: focused on issues of strategic importance to the UK; led from the centre of Government by cross-disciplinary teams; and empowered to solve problems through reporting directly to the Prime Minister. An example of such an issue is AUKUS, with its potential to enhance the UK’s security and prosperity and the need for rapid progress.

Recommendation 6: The Government should replicate the ‘three lines of defence’ model of risk management[8] for strategy. Under this model:

  1. A Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) for the Government as the functional head of the Government’s Strategy cadre, located within the Cabinet Office and reporting to the Cabinet Secretary or Head of the Civil Service as appropriate.
  2. A network of Strategy Units in each Department—managed by the CSO—would support Ministers in creating and overseeing departmental strategy, including with dedicated advisory functions on challenge, delivery and monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). The CSO would convene Units to improve join-up and deconfliction between Departments; he/she would also ensure the quality of Units’ work, including through cadre training. These Units should be exempt from recruitment freezes, so that Departments are always at full strength in this essential function.
  3. An external audit and advice function would provide independent, public assurance of cross-government and Unit strategy-making, delivery plans and metrics.

Recommendation 7: The Government should place much greater emphasis on delivery as part of its strategy-making processes. For example, it could:

Role of HM Treasury

Longstanding criticisms of HM Treasury include that it: focuses on managing departmental spending at the expense of stewarding the UK economy; focuses on fiscal control rather than achieving outcomes—control which is often imposed as the ‘final act’ of strategy- and policymaking processes; and blocks initiatives with which its policy experts do not agree. This situation is exacerbated by the absence of cross-government budgets and the limited oversight of departmental allocations to cross-government goals.

The Commission for Smart Government called for the creation of a Treasury Board—located within a new Prime Minister’s Department[9]—to oversee “the current spending responsibilities of the Treasury”. It also recommended the replacement of Spending Reviews with a ‘Plan for Government’, which would fund Government priorities and impact instead of setting departmental budgets. There are, however, measures that could be taken within existing departmental structures to improve join-up and oversight of funding for cross-government priorities, while greater transparency would expose—and likely help to rein in—the so-called negative ‘blocking power’ of the Treasury.

Recommendation 8: Cabinet Committees should be given a practical role in 1) agreeing total resources and departmental allocations for cross-HMG initiatives and 2) assessing whether funding has been spent as allocated over time.[10] The Government should also establish a mechanism by which Cabinet Committees simultaneously agree, where relevant, the division of funding into tranches, the release of which by HM Treasury throughout the Spending Review period would be dependent on Departments meeting agreed delivery targets and deadlines. HM Treasury should also be integrated into major strategy review teams from the start, to increase their buy-in and reduce their last-minute leverage through resourcing decisions.

Recommendation 9: To achieve greater transparency and public accountability, the NAO should be given the authority and resources to examine initiatives blocked by HM Treasury (i.e. public money that was not spent) in its reports on the basis that this might have reduced long-term value for money. This would then be scrutinised by relevant Select Committees.

Embedding strategic and delivery processes and capability within Government

Superimposing a hub-and-spoke capability onto Whitehall’s departmental system would not be sufficient to create a step-change in strategy, not least because the proposed Strategy Units would function most effectively by drawing on expert input from within the Department, especially at SCS level. The Government should therefore consider changes in processes and capability that simultaneously raise the quality of its strategy and delivery capability at all levels of the Civil Service and support the work of these new Strategy Units.

However, Reform’s August 2023 report painted a damning picture of SCS who:

As the Reform report states, “A high-performing Whitehall is one in which each person feels a responsibility for its corporate health, and leaders act as stewards for this. A self-reforming system should be the goal.” However, achieving this end-state will require incentives to be aligned accordingly and far greater emphasis on developing leadership and management capability.

Recommendation 10: Promotion to and within the ranks of SCS should be an opportunity to test and develop leadership, strategy, management and delivery skills. Using the new digital workforce platform,[11] promotion boards for SCS roles should consider candidates’ track record in delivering policy. They should also involve skills tests and role-playing of scenarios that test strategy and more corporate skills, moving away from the narrative emphasis of competence-based interviews. Those Deputy Directors preparing for promotion should undertake an 18-month leadership, management and strategy training programme,[12] involving training in managerial skill, executive coaching and a period shadowing the CEO of a private-sector company.[13]

Recommendation 11: The Government should build strategy- and decision-making skill at lower grades of the Civil Service, thereby moving towards a culture of action and risk mitigation, and away from that of waiting for permission and risk aversion. Building the necessary ‘muscle memory’ and trust will take time but in addition to attendance at the School for Government (see Recommendation 3), initial steps could include ensuring Ministers hear directly from Departments’ policy experts, even if they are junior officials.[14]

Recommendation 12: The responsibility of Civil Service leaders to the organisation’s long-term capability should be put on a statutory footing. This imperative should be reflected in departmental plans, Annual Reports and Accounts, and Permanent Secretaries’ job descriptions. Consideration should also be given to a long-term financial incentive plan for Permanent Secretaries and other SCS linked to the achievement of specified goals for delivery and the health of the Civil Service.[15]  

Rebuilding policy expertise within Government

Strategy must be adaptive to remain effective in changing circumstances. This means that it must interact continually with the policy processes that combine to deliver its intent. However, those processes have been broken by the detachment of policymaking from delivery, with the former primarily led by the Civil Service and the latter often delegated to operational agencies and the private sector. The lost feedback loop between the two makes it difficult to adjust policy as it is delivered. It also undermines the Government’s ability to adapt the overarching strategy.

The attendant rejection of expertise within the Civil Service in favour of ‘managerial’ skills also undermines the Government’s strategic thinking and its ability to draw on external expertise.

Recommendation 13: The Government must restore and then sustain its deep expertise for more effective strategy-making and delivery. It might look to the US Government—which continually refreshes its expertise and intellectual range through the rotation of political appointees into think tanks—as a model for securing this expertise while it rebuilds. It should also consider how to ensure its deep expertise is retained and made directly available to Ministers.

Role of Devolved Administrations

The Devolved Administrations (DAs) are responsible for policy areas ranging from health and social care to education and training, local Government, agriculture and fisheries, and transport. However, as the Government notes, the settlements can be complex with some areas partially reserved and partially devolved—such as in justice and policing.[16] As the Covid-19 pandemic showed, even where a policy area is ‘reserved’ to the UK Government (as ‘national security’ is), delivery and crisis response may still fall to the DAs in practice—a picture that will only become more complex as power is devolved further in England.[17]

Yet the levers available to Whitehall are often connected only to capabilities in England (and even these are weakly held). DAs likewise find it difficult to influence UK Government strategies that affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) reported in 2021 that despite the Government’s emphasis on the Union in its flagship national security and international strategy (the ‘Integrated Review’), the DAs had been side-lined in UK-wide national security structures. By contrast, the pandemic had demonstrated the importance of clear structures for regular engagement, and of Whitehall structures, processes and information flows that are ‘UK-wide’ by design.[18]

Recommendation 14: The Government should review the role of the Devolved Administrations in UK strategy-making and delivery, with options such as routine consultation, attendance at UK ministerial meetings and cross-administration reporting considered. It should systematise opportunities for official-level exchanges and joint training (via the School for Government—see Recommendation 3). This activity should be reinforced through parliamentary scrutiny (see Recommendations 15–17).

Reinforcing a focus on strategy and delivery through parliamentary accountability

Parliamentary scrutiny can be at its most effective when it anticipates future needs and decision-making or is undertaken while policy is in flux—that is, when the Government has yet to decide its own course and there is opportunity to shape the debate. During the current Parliament, the Commons has trialled mechanisms to bridge the siloes that affect its Select Committee system (which largely shadows the departmental system).[19] It has also trialled new ways of Committee working.[20]

Yet Select Committees can be subject to the same political pull to focus on the immediate as those they scrutinise. Departmental reporting lines on expenditure remain entrenched, with limited information available for cross-departmental budget scrutiny. Technology offers the potential for more direct, continual engagement of the public in scrutiny that better reflects the more interactive nature and expectations of society today. Parliament could also play a positive role in embedding and optimising Whitehall reform and improved strategy through scrutiny, although this would partly depend on the Government being supportive of new scrutiny structures whose work could reinforce its reform agenda.

Recommendation 15: Parliament should work with the Government to establish a Joint Committee for the Future, which would function primarily as a facilitator for other Select Committees (like its Finnish counterpart). They should also use existing mechanisms to ensure scrutiny reinforces effective strategy-making and delivery by Government. In particular, the Government should publish Annual Reports and Accounts on:

Its Annual Reports and Accounts should routinely outline the nature and extent of public, cross-party, and Devolved Administration consultation, and actions taken as a result.

Recommendation 16: Through the Liaison Subcommittee inquiry, the House of Commons should ensure its Select Committees and staff are well-equipped to scrutinise the Government’s strategic thinking and delivery, by:

The Liaison Committee should revisit this framework and staffing periodically (perhaps once during each Parliament) to ensure it remains up-to-date. Staffing provisions should include standing exchanges with the Devolved Assemblies to improve join-up between legislatures.    

Recommendation 17: Parliament should consider embedding more dynamic forms of scrutiny, including those that enable more direct interaction with the public and continued scrutiny after an inquiry. Examples might include: establishing dashboards for key metrics and Committee recommendations on parliament.uk, to be routinely updated by the Government;[22] and facilitating direct engagement through online fora, deliberative and/or e-democracy initiatives.[23] It might also consider joint sessions with counterpart Committees in the Devolved legislatures where relevant.


Bibliography

Commission for Smart Government, ‘Strategic, Capable, Innovative, Accountable: Four Steps to Smarter Government—Headline proposals’, July 2021

HM Government, ‘Declaration on Government Reform’, GOV.uk, June 2021

House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, HL 110, December 2021

Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2021–22, The UK’s national security machinery, HC 231, HL 68, September 2021

Pickles, Charlotte and Sweetland, James, ‘Breaking down the barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform’, Reform, August 2023

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry, HC 656, March 2017

Public Administration Select Committee, First Report of Session 2010–11, Who does UK National Strategy?, HC 435, October 2010

Public Administration Select Committee, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010–12, Strategic thinking in Government: Without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?, HC 1625, April 2021

Rt Hon Jeremy Quin MP, 'Skills, Efficiency and Technology in the Civil Service’, speech delivered at Policy Exchange, London, 19 July 2023

Thomas, Alex, ‘Smarter government: Assessing the Commission for Smart Government’s “four steps” for reform’, Institute for Government, July 2021

Thomas, Alex, 'The heart of the problem: A weak centre is undermining the UK government’, Institute for Government, January 2021

Urban, Jordan and Thomas, Alex, 'Revamping government reform: Assessing the government’s latest plans for the civil service’, Institute for Government, July 2023

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[1] This submission focuses on Ministers and Civil Service; however, many of its recommendations apply across the executive branch.

[2] Pickles and Sweetland, ‘Breaking Down the Barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform’, Reform, Aug. 2023

[3] It is anticipated that Lord Maude’s current review of the Civil Service will also recommend these changes. Chris Smyth, ‘Abolish cabinet secretary and break up Treasury, says Maude review’, The Times, 16 Oct. 2023

[4] As per 2021’s Declaration on Government Reform.

[5] The Cabinet Office is responsible for supporting the Prime Minister, servicing the Cabinet, and ensuring the long-term corporate capability of the Civil Service.

[6] PASC, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010–12, Strategic thinking in Government: Without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?, HC 1625, April 2021; Pickles and Sweetland, ‘Breaking down the barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform’, Reform, Aug. 2023; Alex Thomas, ‘The heart of the problem: A weak centre is undermining the UK government', IfG, Jan. 2021

[7] The IfG described the EU Exit (Strategy/Operations) model as “worth replicating”, having reportedly “thrashed” through issues under Rt Hon Michael Gove MP’s chairmanship, “giving the centre and Number 10 a firm grip on delivery”. Joe Owens, ‘Dominic Cummings’ plan to ‘shake up’ Cabinet committees is positive – but not without problems’, IfG, Jan. 2020

[8] The House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning (RARP) Committee and the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy (JCNSS) recommended the Government adopt the TLOD model of risk management wholesale or in part. The Government rejected both recommendations.

[9] Combining No. 10 with the Cabinet Office.

[10] The Lords RARP Committee and JCNSS have criticised the lack of mechanisms for ensuring that Departments are prioritising national security risk management and allocating funding accordingly. RARP, Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, Dec. 2021; JCNSS, The UK's National Security Machinery, Sept. 2021

[11] Speech: Skills, Efficiency and Technology in the Civil Service - GOV.UK, 19 July 2023

[12] Reform’s August 2023 report cited a Department’s 18-month leadership development programme to make the “100 biggest leaders … think more strategically, more like [the department] is in a system … completely change the mindset … at that point it’s beginning to penetrate down the system”.

[13] A corporate equivalent to language immersion training for diplomats assigned to an overseas Post.

[14] Suzanne Raine, former Head of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (2015–17), told JCNSS in 2021 (Q87) that: “There is a really important psychological shift for government to make. How do you set up a system that enables you to hear from often the most junior people in the room? They are the ones with the insights.”

[15] An approximate equivalent is Goldman Sachs bankers whose salary partly comprises company stocks and shares than cannot be sold within a specified timeframe.

[16] DevolutionFactsheet.pdf

[17] Levelling Up the United Kingdom: Executive Summary, February 2022

[18] JCNSS, The UK's National Security Machinery, Sept. 2021, paras 61–71

[19] For example, ‘guesting’ between Committees where there is shared interest, cross-Committee staffing units and policy hubs that are intended to enable more flexible deployment and strategic development of expertise across Committees and the Library. The Lords Committee system is, by nature, focused on cross-government thematic policy issues.

[20] For example, the use of policy simulations and deliberative democracy mechanisms (such as Citizens Assemblies) to support or supplement conventional inquiries, and the flexible composition of COP26 scrutiny.

[21] All Committee reports on such documents would assess whether the Government had provided a clear statement of what it intended to achieve, by when, how, and with what resources, and whether these three elements were aligned.

[22] The NAO publishes a tracker of its recommendations. The Government is required to provide an annual update on progress.

[23] For example, Parliament trialled the Citizen Assembly model of deliberative democracy in 2020, in the form of Climate Assembly UK. Further, Parliament might learn from the participatory elements of Barcelona’s ‘smart city’ and ‘smart governance’ model.