The civil service is in crisis. This must not go to waste

Andrew Greenway – Civil Service World

Do you best transform government by importing disruption and disruptors to overwhelm the status quo, or by nurturing and encouraging deeper but slower change which more gradually displaces the status quo? Or do both methods fail, leaving government – and the civil service – to stagger on to the next crisis, all set to try again and fail again?

The argument of this post is that those attempts are doomed to failure because the civil service is not willing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis it faces, and until it is, it will never take the steps necessary to fix things. It’s a good and thought provoking polemic – and the questions above are very real ones. But it underplays two important factors. The first is to frame this as being about the civil service. Arguably, that’s too narrow a view:ย if you want to change the system, you have to change the system: the civil service is the way that it is in large part because of the wider political system of which it is part. The second is one the article rightly identifies, but then does not really pursue. One reason disruptive outsiders tend to fail is that by definition they are brought in at a time when they enjoy the strongest possible patronage – and it’s an understandable temptation to see that as a normal state of affairs. But the reality is that such patronage always fades. Disruptors tend to sprint; they might do better if they planned for a relay – and that is as true for those attempting to disrupt from within as for those brought in to disrupt from without.

One Comment

  1. Completely agree with both points. And I’m going to blame word limits for not tackling either of them properly… but that is a cop out.

    On the first, it feels like civil service reformers have a limited chance of winning their arguments without a band of friends keen to do the same in politics, Parliament, business, and the press and wider civil society too. I’m hopeful those people exist, and in growing numbers. Giving such a broad coalition a focused mission is a fiendishly difficult thing to do however (and makes me think it will need a very senior political figure to champion institutional reform above all else to have a chance of success)

    What I probably didn’t explain well enough in the piece was that declaring crisis is not supposed to be a criticism, it’s a device – a means of building a broad coalition and forcing an issue up the agenda. Crisis has no real definition, it’s just something that enough people believe is a crisis. Declaring an ‘opportunity’ is the positive alternative, and the same kind of device. But I believe the Brits prefer and respond better to a crisis!

    The second point – the need for a relay and decent succession planning – is a bit like knowledge management. One of those things where there’s lots of lip service and not much real thought. My sense is that the point that you can’t reform on your own or with one tribe, (i.e. that you need multidisciplinary teams) is beginning to land. How that plays out over time, and multiple political cycles, has not been properly explored yet.

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