If you want to change a system, you have to understand the system you want to change. If you want to reform the civil service, you have to understand why it is the way it is. Part of that is undoubtedly about its internal structures, operations and cultures, but part of it – and a much bigger part than is immediately obvious – is the way it is because other parts of the system are the way they are. Perhaps the biggest of those is the political dimension, both ministerial and parliamentary, which is a huge influence at every level of the civil service.
That symbiosis is not a problem. On the contrary, political oversight of a non-political civil service is fundamental to its legitimacy. But its existence means that changing the way the civil service works without considering how it influences and is influenced by ministers and others is likely to have unintended consequences. The connection is acknowledged in the reform plan:
Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies, and one that operates in a political, parliamentary and media environment that seizes on mistakes but seldom champions operational success. It is vital to engage and empower staff, and to create a dynamic and flexible career path.
The recognition that culture and behaviours are affected by environment is important and welcome. But the corollary also needs to be recognised, that if the culture and behaviour is to change, the environment may need to change too. To take just one example, I have argued before that there is no such thing as the government, and the fragmentation described there is not just a historical accident of civil service organisational structures, but is at least as much to do with ministerial responsibilities and the workings of cabinet government.
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