Backing for civil service reform

Calls for action on civil service reform as Prospect unveils report

The voice of science and engineering must be heard more loudly in government, Prospect deputy general secretary Dai Hudd told a round-table discussion in London yesterday.

He was opening a debate at the launch of the union’s new vision for the civil service: Government That Can – needs people who know how, held at the Royal Society.

Also participating were Martin Narey, former chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and Barnardo’s; and Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government.

The gathering was chaired by Joanna Woolf, chief executive of Cogent sector skills council and attended by stakeholders from the Health and Safety Executive, Ministry of Defence, Government Office for Science, Cabinet Office, TUC, Office for Nuclear Regulation and Royal Society of Arts, journalists and Prospect members.

Science and engineering voices ignored

Hudd reminded the audience of a warning from the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington in 2009 that in the face of the major global challenges of climate change, population growth, threats to food and water security, human and animal diseases and terrorism there had never been “a greater need for science and engineering to contribute to good policymaking and sound government.”

Hudd said: “That encapsulates the concern that Prospect has through our members that the voice of science and engineering in government is not sufficiently heard, and the means to cater for those skills are not sufficiently in place throughout the civil service.”

Prospect welcomed Beddington’s plan to introduce chief scientific advisers in every department. But a recent report from the House of Lords science and technology committee revealed that four departments had ignored the recommendation, including, ironically the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The Ministry of Defence was downgrading the CSA role and the Treasury’s chief scientific officer was an economist, while only one department has a permanent secretary with a SET qualification.

Hudd flagged up 11 principles in Prospect’s report, stressing that specialists should get the professional development they need and deserve. He questioned the way responsibility for key issues such as climate change is dissipated across departments, with no-one taking the lead and employees “stuck in silos”.

At the heart of Prospect’s vision for government must be the realisation that the civil service needs a range of key skills to enable it to act as an intelligent customer, and understand what the market can provide and how it should be delivered.

That could not happen so long as the service denied professionals market rates of pay. “At present, departments are having to distort pay systems in order to come up with Machiavellian schemes to pay people the rate for the job.”

No conflict from competition

Martin Narey said that he took very seriously the report’s general principles about the role of professionals in the civil service. During 25 years in the service some of the finest people he had worked with were Prospect members, including prison psychologists and chaplains – unsung heroes who fought for decent treatment of those incarcerated.

But he took issue with the union’s concern about the drop in the number of civil servants, saying more account should be taken of the fact that many non-civil servants were delivering public services. He had seen prisoners treated with greater dignity in private prisons than in the public sector, and the competition had forced public prisons to improve.

While understanding the anguish about public sector job cuts, public servants were treated better than in the private sector, with double the redundancy payments.

Narey objected to the suggestion that competition conflicted with the principle of universal and equal access, citing Barnado’s running of children’s centres as an example. He also felt the report was harsh on targets.

Narey said a real issue at the top of government was a lack of ministerial confidence in the ability of the civil service to deliver its policies. “I think we are moving to the position where we have to accept that secretaries of state should appoint their permanent secretaries.”

Finally, an ‘unfashionable point’, he believed MPs’ pay should be increased to ensure people of high calibre were in government.

Make spending review ‘rational’

For the Institute for Government, Peter Riddell said that while not agreeing with everything in Government That Can, “I found a lot of things I nodded at.” One was the “sheer difficulty of cross-departmental work,” and another the unintended consequences of spending reviews – for example he had not fully appreciated that the consequence of the abolition of the Government Offices in the Regions was to centralise power in Whitehall.

The IfG had sent an open letter to civil service chiefs Bob Kerslake and Jeremy Heywood and Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude setting out the case for urgent reforms.

“The next spending review must be done in a much more rational way than the last round, which was a macho battle between the Treasury and individual departments.”

It was important to look at cross-departmental savings and focus on value for money but: “We must not just look at cash numbers but at results, what is working and what is not working.”

‘Listen to specialists’

Peter Watson, a nuclear inspector with the Office for Nuclear Regulation (also a case study in Government That Can) said he was speaking for the “many thousands of highly qualified, very professional and utterly dedicated specialists within the civil service.

“I offer my strong support to Prospect’s agenda for civil service reform.” Watson said the great strength of ONR was its teamwork, with many well-qualified, experienced and talented individuals “who are at their best when they combine to weigh up a key strategic regulatory position.”

In his early years as an inspector he had commonly heard policy staff remark that “specialists should be on tap, not on top.”

This attitude was still evident among policymakers. “They generally like to think that they know best and do not always feel the need to consult, let alone listen to the lesser mortals – people who know how. It is an attitude that must change.”


Asked by general secretary Paul Noon if he detected any sign of a ‘grown-up’ debate on the role of the civil service, Peter Riddell said he did not think so yet, as its new leadership was still feeling its way.

Commenting on the issue of competition, Dai Hudd said that Prospect was pragmatic, not ideological; it had many members in the private sector and believed that while competition could be helpful, “the point is the retention of the intelligent customer role within the civil service.”

Responding to a question on staff morale, Peter Watson said it was “a critical area – it is very important for people to feel valued if they are to do their job to the best of their aiblity.”