‘Civil service reform’ is an unintentionally revealing phrase. Its use is a strong indicator of somebody who hasn’t thought through what problem they might be trying to solve, still less what actions might lead to solving it. That’s not because civil service reform is not necessary or not desirable – on the contrary, it is very necessary and very desirable. It is because the civil service (itself a huge collective noun, concealing variety at least as much as describing a singular entity) is part of a wider system. Honest reformers recognise the need to address that wider system; rhetorical reformers do not always feel the need to do so.
Prompted by press coverage suggesting that Francis Maude might be about to be invited to have a third attempt at civil service reform – and with the primary success criterion clearly being the extent to which the civil service ends up smaller as a result – Martin Stanley patiently explains why Maude’s first two attempts failed and why any third attempt is unlikely to do any better. He lists nine problems consistently identified in past reviews of the civil service, all of them depressingly recognisable. But what is perhaps most striking about the list is how much of it is rooted in what ministers and Parliament do (or don’t do) and how little of it is limited to what the civil service does in isolation from that wider system.
Again, that’s not an argument that all is well in the civil service or that nothing there needs to change. Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote a blog post on this issue, prompted by the civil service reform plan published in Maude’s name. It is not reassuring that the last paragraphs of that post seem just as apposite today:
The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.
If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.
This is an old post, but a good one. I had occasion to look it out again this week, so posting it here both as a service to others and to make it easier to find the inevitable next time I want to show it to somebody.
How is it that projects seem to be steadily on track for successful delivery until just before the target date for implementation – at which point they suddenly aren’t? It seems implausible that the phenomenon should be helpfully explained by reference to temperature gradients in oceans, but that is exactly what this post does. For all sorts of reasons – some covered in the post – reporting systems give false assurance to senior decision makers for far too long, until the tipping point is reached at which the actual state of readiness can no longer be concealed, when suddenly the project dashboard goes from benign to catastrophic in an instant. Crossrail provided a particularly spectacular and very public example when it failed to open in 2018 having been presented as being on track to do so only a few months earlier – despite what we now know to be a need for more than three years further work before the line could open.
But this is not a phenomenon limited to big infrastructure projects. I can readily think of examples at more or less every scale, and I suspect anybody with any familiarity with project delivery will have their own. From that experience, I see another critical factor encouraging the development of thermoclines of truth: the setting of delivery deadlines. The further ahead the deadline is set (and the more arbitrary it necessarily is as a result) and the more visible that deadline is, the more certain it is not just that the deadline will not be met, but that the fact that it will not be met will only be recognised at a very late stage. There are some pretty obvious reasons why this adds to the risks Webster identifies in his post – the stronger the commitment, the more visible the failure, and the greater the reluctance to face up to the problem, still more so to be the messenger of bad news.
Delivery happenes when the work is complete. Completion of the work does not happen because delivery is due.