The so-called ‘independence’ of the civil service has created an organisational culture that is inherently resistant to change and attempts by government to modernise public services.
The main political parties now see targeting the civil service as a vote winner if they play on popular perceptions about Whitehall bureaucracy. The debate about civil service reform in the wake of the Gershon review has focused on regional relocation, job cuts and the false choice between ‘bureaucrats’ and frontline workers.
Ed Straw argues that the time has come for government to address a more fundamental problem: the unsuitability of the civil service’s structure and management culture for delivering public service reform.
“Imagine becoming chief executive of a large organisation and being told that the entire management are ‘independent’. You have no control over recruitment, promotion and pay and that the senior staff operate as a separate organisation with a mind of its own. Modern organisations do not and cannot work like that, and neither can government.”
The promotion of ‘gifted generalists’ to the top of the civil service has meant that specialist and professional management skills are undervalued in government departments which control massive budgets.
The civil service policy of rotating senior staff from department to department means that experience and specialist knowledge are often lost, and departments have poor ‘organisational memory’ about what works and what doesn’t.