24 May 2022

Five ways to get the ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service back on the road

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Cabinet Secretary Simon Case faces scathing criticism in Sue Gray’s ‘Partygate’ report. If he’s keen to show his worth to the Prime Minister, Case could start by improving the civil service, whose so-called ‘Rolls-Royce’ procedures would sorely benefit from an overhaul.

That might help with ministers’ aim to cut headcount by a fifth to get the civil service back to its size in 2016. I offer Mr Case five suggestions, none of which will take more taxpayer money. As the head of the Home Civil Service, he has the power to start on each of them.

Of course, many civil servants are highly talented people doing incredible and under-appreciated jobs. We should be pushing to retain those with better incentives and giving them more power to make decisions with less bureaucracy. But that requires hard detailed work to fix where the civil service is going wrong. Hand-waving won’t do. If the solution had been easy, some previous Prime Minister would have done it.

First, Mr Case needs to start fixing the Treasury. The department that controls the money pulls the strings. British GDP per capita does not need to be 30% lower than the US, and 12% lower than Germany. We have sunk into a spirit of complacency that managed decline is all we can achieve. In fact we could fix land use rules; fix transport and bring in road pricing; fix education and childcare; fix energy; and fix healthcare, including how we approve new treatments. Combined, that would probably boost living standards by more than 30%.

But it’s hopeless to expect individual departments to do that. They don’t have the time or the resources to find policies that could work both politically and economically. The body that controls the resources is the Treasury, which seems to lack the skills to come up with politically workable policy to fix any of these problems. It seems to have given up on growth and abandoned itself to the accountants. And worst of all, it doesn’t have any real process for trying to improve itself. That needs to change, even if abolishing the Treasury might be too drastic.

Second, Mr Case should ditch the convention that civil servants have to constantly move departments to advance their careers. It’s not good to have people who simply get captured by vested interests. But enormous amounts of painfully acquired expertise get lost in the endless jobs merry-go-round.

In the words of a current civil servant, the service has many generalist policy people who advance through the hierarchy as they learn the right language and behaviours to perform, but have only superficial knowledge of how to design decent policy. Another said that one policy:

‘had negligible thought, it was mostly outsourced to a delivery partner, and the civil servants lacked basic understanding of how the policy would work. It was very much: this is a problem. Therefore we need money to fix the problem. Therefore we ask for money and give it to someone else to spend.’

Third, improve hiring. It should be just as easy to advertise externally as internally, and the incentives should encourage doing both and hiring fast, so that an open process doesn’t slow things down if the hirer finds a good candidate early. That also means fixing the STAR interview method and improving internal processes that make it relevant. There are some interesting suggestions here, for example. STAR is confusing for outside candidates and makes it much harder to bring in good people.

Fourth, he should create a real and simple process for secondments, like in the US, so it’s easier to bring in private sector expertise. Importantly, if those people are paid for externally, they shouldn’t count towards civil service headcount. A secondee funded by the Wellcome Trust is not a cost to HMG and shouldn’t be treated as one. The confusion and inertia on that question are unforgivable.

And fifth, he should look at improving procurement to save costs and get better outcomes. He might start with this week’s report by The Entrepreneur’s Network, endorsed by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The civil service shrank from around 470,000 full time officials in 2010 to around 384,000 in 2016, then rebounded to some 472,000 last year. We can have a Rolls-Royce civil service back, and a leaner one. But the rules have to let it do its job well. Much of that is in Mr Case’s power. It is time for him to show what he can do with it.

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John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance, which works to end the housing crisis with the support of local communities.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.