Why civil servants need to get out to get on
These days, it would take a brave person to ask BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, to go and run an oil rig. But there is no doubt his time spent as a rig geologist in Aberdeen makes him a more credible and informed business leader.
As Mr Hayward demonstrates, time spent delivering at the frontline is among the best preparations there is for a position of power – and that principle is as true for Whitehall as it is for the world of business.
That is why I want to explore the case for requiring all civil servants to spend time out in the field before they can reach the most senior positions in Whitehall.
The truth is that most officials are highly talented and competent, but they are being asked to design and manage delivery systems which few of them have ever worked in.
The Civil Service would produce better policy, deliver improved outcomes and become more credible if senior managers had spent a couple of years in local government or another area of frontline service, and better understood the challenges being faced.
Central government is changing rapidly. Over the past decade, we have worked hard to reform the Civil Service, taking it away from its traditional focus on policy-making and towards a new set of delivery skills.
As ministers, we have demanded a service which can turn our aspirations for a better society into reality on the ground. And there has been significant progress, particularly with the development of external capability reviews that highlight the areas where departmental boards need to make further improvements.
But the capability reviews show we need to go further to turn the Civil Service into a delivery machine fit for both current purpose and for future challenges. While departments scored well for their policy advice, it is essential that they develop still further the leadership and delivery skills of their people.
We need to see in Whitehall the kind of rapid improvement that the CPA helped to deliver for local government.
But the challenges for the civil service don’t stop there.
After a decade of driving improvement through targets, we are now in a new phase of public service reform based on the three principles of a new professionalism, empowered citizens and strategic leadership from Whitehall.
Our approach in government is that the centre should set vision, frameworks and incentives, but reject micro-management, recognising that local public services hold the key to transforming people’s lives.
So, we need new kinds of leadership from our civil servants.
Those who sit in senior positions within departments must be able to manage complex delivery chains which reach from ministerial offices in London to the front doors of people in Rotherham and Rotherhithe and Rotherley Down.
This is recognised by Gus O’Donnell, who is fond of telling civil servants that they need to ‘get out to get on’. With the relevant career experience, such officials will have greater clout to influence, inspire and collaborate with local public bodies, as well as hold them to account for their performance.
Of course, some civil servants already gain broader experience from outside Whitehall, in both public sector bodies and the private sector.
One way of speeding up the pace of change would be to see no civil servant rising beyond grade three – two levels below permanent secretary – without being able to demonstrate some significant delivery and operational management experience.
This could be in local government or in the commercial world or in the third sector, NHS, education, jobs and training fields.
The point is that having done so, they will better understand how central policy plays out in practice. And they will have a deeper appreciation of the way frontline staff think, operate and serve the public.
It would also engender a much richer exchange between Whitehall officials and their colleagues across the nation’s public service, helping by extension, to remove the binary culture of them and us that is too-often still apparent.
To take the Department of Communities and Local Government as an example, civil servants seconded to spend quality time in councils could see two immediate benefits. It would speed the transfer of best practice and innovation between frontline services and the strategic centre.
Meanwhile, more of those already working with local government would see central government as a good career option.
In recent years, local authority chief executives have been starting to make their presence felt in Whitehall.
Carolyn Downs’ move from Shropshire CC to become deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice next year is only the latest in a long line of moves from local to central, stretching back to Michael Bichard joining the-then Department for Education and Employment, or our own CLG permanent secretary, Peter Housden, joining Whitehall from Nottinghamshire CC.
The time is right, however, for us to kick-start a flow of people in the other direction, with civil servants taking up delivery posts across the map of UK public services.
I appreciate that this could be controversial, but the potential benefits mean that the idea merits serious consideration.
It would lead to an increase in the numbers of skilled civil servants, providing better policy advice and being able to manage delivery more effectively.
Far as such ambition might seem from drilling for oil in the North Sea, I believe we should establish the principle that the seams of talent within our Civil Service are of top quality only when they have first been enriched in the field.
John Healey is local government minister
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