By Alex Thomas, Programme Director, Institute for Government & Rhys Clyne, Senior Researcher, Institute for Government

The 475,000 politically impartial officials who make up the UK civil service are integral to British government. They advise ministers on matters of policy, manage major projects and administer public services around the country.  

Like any organisation the civil service requires ongoing management and improvement to adapt to the changing requirements placed on it. That is why there is no simple end point to efforts to reform the civil service. Repeated programmes of change are needed to keep the civil service up to date and to ensure that current and future government programmes happen. 

The history of civil service reform 

The civil service can be recognisably traced through centuries of British history. The principle of civil servants advising, serving and being accountable to ministers can be seen in the words of Elizabeth I to William Cecil “that you will be faithful to the state and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel which you think best”.  

The civil service today has been shaped by incremental change, with a few major moments of reform: 

  • The 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report established the idea of a permanent, impartial civil service with recruitment based on merit 
  • The 1968 Fulton Report identified the dominance of policy generalists in the civil service at the expense of subject experts and professional managers  
  • The Next Steps Programme of the 1980s-90s aimed to make the civil service more efficient by moving delivery functions into separate bodies 
  • The early 2000s Modernising Government programme focused on performance management, delivery and digital reform in public services  
  • The 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan established the ‘functional model’ of shared practices between departments  

The same areas of reform recur across the decades. Some are issues any organisation should prioritise, like the skills of its employees or financial efficiency. Others are problems the civil service has long tried to address, such as linking pay to performance, making the civil service more representative of society, reducing the dominance of policy officials and making the civil service less London-centric.  

This recurrence should not deter reformers. The civil service is markedly more diverse than it used to be in its demography and in the skills of the workforce. Many of its cross-cutting ‘functions’ like finance and project management are more effective than in the past. And the crises facing the UK, from climate change to the cost of living, require the government to restlessly improve its own capabilities.  

The Johnson government’s approach to civil service reform  

This government’s civil service reform work has taken markedly different forms over the last three years. Johnson’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, took a combative approach characterised as a “hard rain” upon the civil service. But by the time of his departure from No10 in late 2020, rather than a coherent programme of reform the result was limited to the high-profile sacking of senior officials (largely replaced by similar career civil servants), and the creation of a few bespoke teams at the centre of government, including a joint HMT-No 10 policy team and a new data unit.  

As the minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove chose a more constructive approach, starting with a 2020 lecture on “the privilege of public service”. This led to the 2021 Declaration on Government Reform and 30-point action plan, published under the name of the prime minister and the cabinet secretary, Simon Case. The Declaration covered reforms across the themes of “people”, “performance” and “partnerships”, including actions to:  

  • Relocate 22,000 officials outside London 
  • Introduce capability-based pay for senior officials  
  • Open up recruitment to other sectors and increase the use of secondments 
  • Establish new training programmes for officials and ministers 
  • Increase the diversity of the civil service 
  • Improve policy making by fostering collaboration between ministers and officials 
  • Reform the accountability of senior civil servants, ministers and departments 

The joint sign-up by the civil service and the prime minister was a signal that the “hard rain” was over. But while the Declaration was – in places – an ambitious statement of intent there was a gap between its goals and the plans actually in place to achieve them. The action plan was insufficient to turn the Declaration into reality.  

Progress towards implementing the 30 actions has also been slower than hoped. Institute for Government research found that eight of the 30 actions had been implemented by March 2022. Most were delayed or had not been addressed.  

Most recently, the government’s interest in its own plan seems to have withered. In February 2022 Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed minister for government efficiency. His focus has moved to efficiency and short-term financial savings. The government has set out a target to reduce the size of the civil service by around one fifth (91,000 roles) to its pre-Brexit headcount of 2016 and also unwisely agreed to pause graduate ‘fast stream’ recruitment.  

Prospects for future reform 

While not perfect, the government had the right idea with the Declaration. A year on from its publication the next step should be to update the plans, setting out work to make changes that recognise the complex system in which the civil service operates. Reform should address the most difficult problems including: 

  • The governance of the civil service and its accountability to ministers and parliament 
  • Interchange of experience, knowledge and resources between the civil service and other sectors  
  • The need to create a ‘smarter centre’ of government capable of further decentralisation of policy  
  • More open policy making that incorporates deeper domain expertise from inside and outside government 

But the prime minister has been weakened by the political fallout of ‘partygate’. His government is narrowly focused on survival in the weeks and months ahead. This makes long-term institutional reform unlikely. 

But a moment for major civil service reform will come again, with the same themes re-emerging. In the meantime the government has a workable plan – ministers and senior officials should get on and deliver it.