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Has The Civil Service Changed Significantly Since 1979? Is Further Radical Change Desirable Assignment

For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, the popular image of the British Civil Service has been the inefficient, conservative, and self-interested Whitehall Mandarin so ably satirised by the “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” television programmes. Ironically, at the time these programmes were produced, the Civil Service was undergoing major changes, and actually had never had less in common with its screen image. The Civil Service has changed considerably since 1979, and the process of change is continuing into the new century.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the British civil service has dramatically increased in size, reflecting the ever-increasing range of responsibilities undertaken by government. Though numbering a relatively small 116,00 in 1901, the service quickly increased in size as the welfare state expanded, reaching a peacetime peak of 747,000 by 1975. Today, in 2002, the service stands at around 460,000 – a 40% drop in numbers. However, though the New Right often speaks of “small government”, it is not immediately obvious that there has been any significant reduction in the services that the British people expect the state to provide.

How, therefore, has the Civil Service changed so as to make such a large reduction in numbers practical? In some ways the British Civil Service remains more or less unchanged – it is still a permanent professional, hierarchical organisation, charged with the administration of government and the implementation of policy. Though the distinction between politics and administration is slightly blurred at the top, the Civil Service is also, for the most part, anonymous and non-partisan.

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However, these Weberian ideals are the foundation of any government bureaucracy, and therefore cannot be changed without fundamentally altering the very nature of the Civil Service. Nevertheless, the most single important characteristic of the Weberian ideal is that a bureaucracy should be efficient. It is the basic idea of increasing the efficiency of government activity that lies at the heart of all of the changes in the Civil Service since 1979. Most observers regarded the British civil service as “the best in the world” for many years.

However, by the 1960’s, there was increasing criticism of both the efficiency and effectiveness of the civil service, culminating in the 1968 Report of the Fulton Committee. The Fulton Report is often seen as a landmark in the modern history of the Civil Service1. Though the report was by no means original in itself – it was not the first major official report on the service, and academic criticism of the Civil Service had been going on for decades – the depth of its attack was unprecedented, and it provided a focus for subsequent reform efforts.

However, though the general thrust of the report reflected the prevailing mood among commentators at the time, and was accepted by the then Labour government, relatively little action was taken on the basis of the report for the next decade. The House of Commons Expenditure Committee concluded in 1977 that there had not been a determined effort to implement the Fulton recommendations, suggesting that the Civil Service had not taken them seriously. 2

The Thatcher government was elected in 1979 on a manifesto to reduce public expenditure and the role of the state. Government policy towards the public sector was to realise substantial economies by reducing waste, bureaucracy and “over-government”. Greatly expanding on the Fulton Report, Thatcher maintained that senior officials spent too much time attempting to influence policy, and too little on actually managing their departments efficiently, and were woefully lacking in managerial skills.

The Thatcher government placed an almost religious emphasis on the importance of improving both efficiency and effectiveness, and initiated a series of measures aimed at creating a “slimmer and fitter civil service”. The broad aim of increasing efficiency encompasses two basic ideas. The first is reducing the scale of the Civil Service through efficiency measures; the second is reducing the scope of the service through privatisation. Prior to 1979, an enormous number of economic activities and social services were provided directly by the state.

Under this system, anybody who worked for the government was technically a civil servant, even dustmen and dockworkers! Since the Thatcher government came to power, however, the state has shifted to become a procurer of services rather than a direct provider. The scale of the Thatcher privatisation initiative was unprecedented – all of the nationalised industries were ultimately sold to the private sector, while many government services were contracted out to private firms, many of which took on staff who had previously been on the government payroll.

Even within the bureaucracy itself, certain functions have been contracted out to private firms, such as computer maintenance and building security. Though much of this activity was motivated by the New Right idea that the private sector does everything better, certain reforms were undertaken on the practical grounds that providing support services is a distraction from the main task of an organisation, and is best left in the hands of specialists. 3 The first major change under the Thatcher efficiency drive was the Financial Management Initiative (FMI), formally launched in 1982.

This programme had the major aim of installing a system to provide managers with accurate measures of the cost of their activities, the resources they utilised, and the performance of their departments, in terms of objectives met4. Accurate data on inputs and outputs is a foundation requirement for assessing the performance of any system and the lack of basic statistical and financial information available to managers had hitherto represented an insurmountable obstacle to increasing efficiency. A more decentralised style of budgetary control was also implemented as part of the programme.

Greater availability information made it possible to divide departments into smaller “cost centres”, each of which became responsible for controlling its own costs. The second stage of the reform programme was much a much more ambitious shake up of management systems within the Civil Service. Better process information, and a decentralised budgetary system, while laudable reforms in themselves, are of comparatively little value without managers who can have the knowledge and the authority use the tools available to them effectively.

Prior to the 1980’s, there was little evidence of a “management culture” in the Civil Service, with most decisions being handed down from the very top of the organisation, and little flexibility given to the lower levels of the service in their implementation. It is a maxim in the military that allowing strategic thinkers who are totally ignorant of conditions on the battleground to make tactical decisions is a recipe for defeat, but this is nevertheless precisely the way that the Civil Service operated.

The goal of the new programme was to delegate management authority for implementation down to the lowest level of the hierarchy able to take responsibility for it5. The expectation was that by specifying only the fundamental requirements, line managers would have the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, making policy implementation both more efficient and more effective. The programme of improving management skills began in the early 1980’s with a set of improvements in personnel management recommended by the Cassells Report.

These measures included improved career management and training for those with the potential to rise to higher levels of the service, new courses available to senior officers for improving their management skills, and the beginnings of a performance-related pay scheme. A limited system of delegation was implemented at the same time in order to make the “cost centre” concept of the FMI practical. Unsurprisingly, these measures were unevenly implemented, and in some areas, progress was very slow.

Some felt that the measures implemented were half-hearted even by the standards of the Fulton report, but enough progress was made for the Head of the Home Civil Service to describe FMI as “the most important development in the previous 18 years”. 6 However, the effectiveness of these measures was called into question by the 1988 Ibbs Report, which made the point that senior officials were still spending far too much time on influencing policy and not enough on active management. This situation was exacerbated by a promotions system that tended to reward policy work rather than competent management.

Securing continued efficiency improvements required more radical measures. The process of management delegation was therefore accelerated under the “Next Steps” initiative. Drawing from both the Ibbs and Fulton Reports, the aim of the programme was to achieve as a great a separation as possible between policy formulation and administrative management, by establishing existing civil service activities as semi-autonomous Executive Agencies, which would operate apart from the main departments.

Each agency would have a clearly defined task specified by quantitative and qualitative targets, and set financial operating parameters. Each agency would be run by a Chief Executive, ideally a professional manager, who would enjoy extensive operating freedom in the pursuit of these goals, and would handle its own pay and recruitment schemes. Ideally, once policy was determined, the details of implementation would be left to the discretion of the agency, though the Chief Executive would still be accountable to the Minister.

The “Next Steps” initiative has been by far the largest and most radical change in the Civil Service in its history. Where there was once a monolithic Civil Service, there now exists a relatively small central core engaged in policy formulation, and over 140 Executive Agencies charged with implementation, encompassing nearly the full range of government activities.

By these measures, the programme may be regarded as an unqualified success. The management and efficiency reforms that have led to the break-up of the Civil Service do not represent the only changes that have been implemented over the last twenty years. In July 1991, the Citizen’s Charter was launched, turning the attention of reform towards quality of service.

The charter requires all public agencies to demonstrate that they are provided high quality service, and provides for redress or compensation where standards fall below stipulated levels. In order to achieve this, greater transparency of operation was necessary – so-called “Open Government”. The philosophy of Open Government goes much wider than any managerial or financial reform, in that it has made possible the separation of accountability and responsibility, which hitherto represented a profound obstacle to reform.

In the past, the Minister in charge of a department was, in theory, “responsible for every stamp stuck on an envelope”7. In reality, it is of course impossible for any Minister to directly exercise responsibility for every activity8 in his department, yet he was nevertheless held accountable for failing to do so. Naturally, ensuring efficiency in government activity is impossible if the only person who can be held to account for its lack has only nominal responsibility for the activities in question.

Under the new system, though the Minister is still ultimately accountable for the aggregate performance of his department, those who have agreed to provide services are individually responsible for their provision, and may be rewarded or penalised accordingly on their success or failure to do so. Where explicit standards of service are available for anyone to read, and the responsibility for meeting them is delegated right down to the line, it is a relatively simple matter to bring pressure on either the provider or the purchaser to improve the service9.

The importance of this cannot be understated – in many ways the clear devolution of management and responsibility and the establishment of quantifiable and transparent targets form the foundation for the entire reform programme. Open Government has made the Civil Service directly accountable to the people, rather than the ineffective accountability by political proxy that was the hallmark of the old system. Few parts of the Civil Service have remained untouched by the sweeping changes in management, finance, structure and accountability that have been implemented over the last twenty years.

The reforms that have taken place since 1979 have left use with a considerably smaller, less centralised, more transparent, and above all, more efficient and customer-conscious Civil Service. In some ways, the streamlined service of today is scarcely recognisable as the descendent of the monolithic inefficient bureaucracy that existed twenty years ago. However, the reforms of the last twenty years do not represent the end of reform in the Civil Service, nor the necessity for it. In March 1999, the Labour Government published a White Paper called “Modernising Government”, which incorporated a series of new reforms.

Naturally, there are still plans to improve areas of the service where efficiency and quality of service are still lacking, and it is likely that the process of contracting-out services will continue – these are a logical extension of past reforms. However, the more important reforms of the future centre on the concept of integration, or “Joined-up Government”, which will probably be the major theme of further Civil Service development over the next decade, and is just as radical as the reforms that have come before it.

Though the Civil Service has changed a great deal since 1979, in one important respect it remains the same – it is still just as fragmented as it was when a single entity. That is, each department and agency is concerned primarily with it own affairs, and takes great care to ensure that its work remains separate from other departments. While this avoids inefficient jurisdictional conflict – the famous “turf wars” that plagued the old bureaucracy – it does prevent the efficient handling of complex social and economic problems that spread across the jurisdictions of multiple agencies.

Policy is formulated in relation to specific problems, and implemented within a fairly narrow context. For example crime may be addressed in the context of policing and the criminal justice system, but the causes of crime are often rooted in the much wider area of social deprivation, which involves education, living standards, upbringing and other factors. Co-ordinated action in a variety of areas is usually necessary to develop workable solutions to complex social problems. The aim of Joined-up Government is the development of coherent solutions to problems that affect multiple agencies.

This is to be achieved by subjecting any given problem to a detailed examination from multiple angles, considering how the actions of each agency affects the activities of the others, and reaching a consensus of how each agency can best contribute to a comprehensive solution. 10 Decades of policy failures show the futility of trying to develop piecemeal solutions to multifaceted problems. The danger of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing is very real in government. Coherent policy responses are necessary, if only to prevent agencies working to opposite ends.

The other aspect of Joined-up Government is the provision of linked services. There are many occasions when a citizen is compelled to use a series of government services, either simultaneously, or in quick succession, but has to arrange this at several different points of contact, because agencies do not communicate with each other. Establishing a mechanism by which citizens can access packages of services from a single point of contact – one-stop-shop service – is a logical outgrowth of the drive to improve customer service which has permeated Civil Service reform over the last decade or so.

Equally, the pooling of information held on an individual citizen by various agencies, though posing a risk to privacy, allows both greater efficiency and effectiveness. The simple aim of reducing the volume of wastefully duplicated paperwork that both citizens and Civil Servants have to handle constitutes one of the most worthwhile of all possible reforms. These planned reforms represent a profound change to the operation of the Civil Service. Compartmentalisation has always been a major feature of the service, even before 1979, and has only been reinforced by the Executive Agency programme.

Replacing compartmentalisation with co-operation and co-ordination will be essential if agencies are to deliver truly cohesive policies and services, but achieving this while maintaining a distinct identity for cost-control and management purposes will be a major challenge. It is ironic that after two decades of breaking the service up, current reforms focus on joining the pieces up again, albeit (to use a computer metaphor) in the form of a peer-to-peer information and task sharing network, rather than the old client-server model.

Nevertheless, if the Civil Service is to continue to improve its efficiency and quality of service into the new century, these reforms are essential. While all of the reforms outlined above have been, and continue to be, desirable improvements in the Civil Service, one area where radical change is definitely not wanted is in the area of professional ethics. The ideal Weberian bureaucracy should be apolitical, and for the most part, the British Civil Service has managed to remain admirably separated from the party political system, despite accusations that careers have prospered for those who were “one of us”. 1 Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a worrying trend for the boundary between Government and Party interest to become increasingly blurred. Certainly the appointment of large numbers of “special advisors” in recent years to positions of somewhat amorphous authority and responsibility have resulted in certain parts of the core civil service being drawn systematically into political advocacy and activities which are not strictly Government functions.

Though there is a Civil Service Code mandating high ethical standards, the greater emphasis placed on political image by modern governments is unquestionably putting some strain on the Civil Service’s commitment to political neutrality. Hopefully, further politicisation of the Civil Service can be avoided in the future – it will certain be impossible for government to remain both open and honest otherwise. In conclusion, the reforms instituted in the British Civil since 1979 are remarkable for their scope.

In a comparatively short period of time, a monolithic, inefficient and unresponsive bureaucracy has been transformed into a considerably smaller, decentralised, efficient and flexible organisation, whose first emphasis is on customer service. Though it is arguable that the upper levels of the service have become more politicised in recent years, for the most part, these reforms have been accommodated without significantly altering the Weberian foundation of the Civil Service, or compromising its professional ethics.

Further reform is still necessary if the service is to continue to improve the quality and efficiency of the services it offers, and the new emphasis on Joined-up government, or comprehensive policy formulation and implementation, will pose a major challenge in the future. However, finding effective solutions to pressing social problems in a changing world demands flexibility, and a commitment to adaptation – further change, even radical change, is not only desirable, but inevitable.

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