The Rising Tide of pervasive & pernicious Incompetence?


Date: 05/03/2009
Subject: Reform Bulletin –
‘Fit for purpose’ report launched today


5 March 2009

for purpose


Reform today publishes
report Fit
for purpose.
The report suggests that Britain’s Civil Service is failing to operate
effectively and calls for greater democratic accountability in Whitehall at the senior
.  Liam Byrne MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, spoke at
the launch event yesterday, hosted by KPMG.  The report is available at

report argues that performance failure in government is bad enough in good times
but in a recession it is disastrous. Ministers pull the levers but nothing
happens.  This week the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has admitted
that the £10 billion business lending support scheme, due to launch on Monday,
is weeks behind schedule and does not even have a start date. 

Civil Service’s own Capability Reviews have found “significant weaknesses” in
each of the departments reviewed.  HM Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs, the
critical departments for dealing with the economic crisis, are particularly poor
performers.  90 per cent of HMRC’s review and 60 per cent of the Treasury’s
found “significant weaknesses” or worse.

The much-mythologised “independence” of British civil
servants has become an excuse for zero accountability
.  The
governments of other countries such as Australia, France and Canada have
abandoned such notions long ago and ensure their executives are held to
account.  In Australia, permanent secretaries are
appointed by the Prime Minister on consultation with the relevant departmental
Minister.  In New
Zealand, permanent secretaries are employed by
the state under a contractual system to deliver according to manifesto

In Britain, a lack of accountability
permeates every rank of the service. Officials who keep their head down are able
to “coast” the senior ranks while fresh thinking is often rewarded with being
sidelined or lost in cost-cutting voluntary redundancy strategies.
Only 19 per cent of senior civil servants believe that poor
performance is dealt with effectively in their

Successful Civil
Service reform means:

Ending the doctrine
of Ministerial responsibility.  The idea that Ministers are responsible for
every action of their department shields officials from taking personal
responsibility for their actions.  Ministers should be responsible solely for
the strategic direction of policy and its

democratic accountability for civil servants.  The
UK has one of the most unaccountable
Civil Service systems in the world
.  Democratically elected
politicians should have the power to appoint senior civil servants, with greater
scrutiny of appointments, on the Australian model.

Abolishing grades and
recruiting openly.  Because the current recruitment system is centralised and
based on fixed “grades” for different jobs, it is a barrier to the best people
being recruited to do the jobs that are needed.  Discrimination of “internal”
over “external” candidates should be abolished and line managers should lead
recruitment of their teams.

Embracing localism. 
Local government can be more clearly accountable for performance in many areas
of policy.


Reform held a launch event
for the paper yesterday at KPMG with speakers including Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP,
Minister for the Cabinet, Alan Downey, KPMG’s UK Head of Public Sector, and
Rupert Darwall, Consultant Director of Reform and former Special Adviser to the

Liam Byrne welcomed
the report as a contribution to the debate on Civil Service reform.  He called
for “sharper” accountability and looked forward to a time when internal
appointments in the Civil Service were the exception rather than the rule.  He
referred to his announcement on 4 February, in which he asked Sir David Omand,
Lord Victor Adebowale and Professor Ken Starkey to report on closing the gap
between Whitehall and front line delivery, and asked Sir Michael Bichard and Sir
Gus O’Donnell to report on “how rethinking the performance management and
accountability of civil servants can better promote value for

Welcoming the report,
David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, said:

“The issue of Civil
Service reform is a critical one and I very much welcome the report.  I am
pleased that Reform is engaging all three main parties and addressing this issue
head-on.  Tony Blair once said that what is important is ‘Delivery’, ‘delivery,
‘delivery’.  I hope that, working across party lines, we can now take this
particular bull by the horns and challenge the status

Both the
First Division Association (the trade union for senior civil servants) and
The Daily Telegraph have
responded arguing against democratic accountability for senior civil

“The idea that the UK should move
towards a system of democratic accountability for senior civil servants would
not lead to better government. The political impartiality of the civil service
lies at the heart of objective policy advice, which is necessary for effective
decision-making” (FDA news release, 5 March 2009). [Political middle-of-the-road impartiality of the Whitehall
Mandarins is unique and essential in my view in UK Civil Service keeping Govt of
any Political persuasion in check.

are many problems with the Civil Service, but we are by no means convinced that
further politicisation is the answer. If anything, it is the problem. Surely the
preferred solution is to reduce the size of the State, and thereby limit the
potential for mistakes and enhance opportunities for considered policy
development? Big government seeks to justify its existence by interfering where
it is neither needed nor wanted. The Civil Service would be more efficient and
less prone to waste, incompetence and errors if politicians stopped trying to
micro-manage the whole of society” (editorial, The Daily Telegraph, 5 March

At the
launch event, the following points were made in reaction to these

overriding issue is competence
.  The current structure does not provide
“effective decision-making”.  Poor quality officials are

Civil Service reform
is a precondition to “reducing the size of the State” because the current
structure does not embed value for money.

reaction of the First Division Association also revealed its antipathy to
external appointments, contrary to the view of Liam

Reform report also suggests that there should be a greater move toward ‘open and
flexible recruitment’.  There is evidence that salaries for external recruits to
the Senior Civil Service are 30 per cent higher than for those appointed from
within the Civil Service.  And there is little evidence that the taxpayer is
getting value for this investment.  Indeed, many of the quarter of Senior Civil
Servants who are currently recruited externally do not succeed in their roles"
(FDA news release, 5 March 2009).


The report was
covered by BBC News
, The Daily Telegraph (report
and editorial),
the Daily
, Financial
and Scotsman.

Andrew Haldenby,
Reform’s Director, has written an article for Conservativehome: “None
of this implies that all officials are incompetent or obstructive.  During this
research we have spoken to excellent officials who are the model of what civil
servants should be: acutely conscious of costs to the taxpayer and keen to be
personally accountable for performance.  But they do this despite the structure
of the civil service, not because of it.”

Tom Watson, a BBC
political correspondent, described the report on the Today programme: “The Reform think tank
doesn’t believe we have a ‘Rolls Royce’ Civil Service anymore, in fact, it is
more akin to an old banger, slow and difficult to steer.  So today’s report,
drawing on un-attributable interviews with civil servants themselves, calls for
radical reforms.  These would include advertising of Civil Service posts to the
outside world, allowing Ministers to appoint senior civil servants themselves.
 The long established doctrine of Ministerial responsibility would be ditched,
with civil servants held directly accountable for their actions.  The think tank
says that unless Civil Service performance improves plans to get
Britain out of recession may be
implemented too slowly.”

For more
information contact Lucy Parsons on or 020
7799 6699.


Economics Researcher
45 Great
Peter Street

Tel 020 7799
Fax 020 7233 4446
Mobile 07932 656847

Reform is an
independent, non-party think tank whose mission is to set out a better way to
deliver public services and economic prosperity.


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