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Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine

5 May 2022

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Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine

Reported by Jack Byrne, Journal Editor at Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE).

“The leadership of the civil service can change if it wants to,” says the former Permanent Secretary for the Department of Education, Jonathan Slater. The most senior civil servant at the DfE from 2016-2020 across UK government, led an online seminar for CSaP’s Policy Fellows and wider network, the first for Easter Term 2022. He discussed the inner workings of Whitehall, the epicentre of UK government policy and the primary theme of his most recent report, 'Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine', published by The Policy Institute of King’s College London.

Why join the civil service?
Many people may pursue a career in the civil service to improve standards in a certain policy area and to bring about positive, real-world effects. Or, simply, “to make a difference,” said Slater. The potential for progress motivates many to join the policy profession, however, he said his 20-year career in the civil service made clear that many junior civil servants, “working in Whitehall will, regrettably, feel as though they have not quite made the difference they initially hoped for.”

Slater added it is particularly true for those working in the shadows of government ministers. Demonstrating improvement in a certain policy area is unquestionably difficult, not least because it requires the alignment of multiple forces - the governing mandate, the will of ministers, and the availability of resources – for this is a high bar to be met, he said. The process is made much more onerous by the current incentive structure of the civil service. Slater quoted a previous colleague’s response to his frustration at this reality:

The civil service is not a place for the impatient…but from time to time, the stars will come into alignment, and then you can achieve something rather amazing.

An individual’s ability to think quickly on their feet, and to work with ministers and Whitehall colleagues are more reliable predictors of success than an individual’s expertise in any given area, Slater said. While he accepted that these “handling skills” and characteristics are undoubtedly necessary for a well-functioning civil service, he argued that they should not be sufficient for promotion, and they certainly should not be prioritised over other, more relevant competencies such as knowledge or an individual’s ability to achieve. “That isn’t good for civil servants'', Slater said, “and it is certainly not good for the public”. He added: “The system will only change if leaders of civil service want it to”.

And though that's not what people want to do, that is what they end up doing, if they are ambitious for promotion, because that is what is rewarded.

The path forward: reforming the civil service
The seminar then proceeded to an insightful discussion involving independent policy professionals and government officials. The forum primarily tackled the issue of civil service reform, culture, and accountability. One participant likened the incentive structures in the civil service to a game, where those who "play the game" and abide by its rules are rewarded with power and influence. Another participant wondered: how might one convince those in power that change is worthwhile, given that power is essentially a zero-sum game? Slater detailed several pathways through which reform might be achieved, as well as independent triggers that necessitate change irrespective of the desire. On the former, he explained that new models of leadership, though admittedly rare, are conduits for change. Slater argued: “Change certainly isn’t easy, but it is not impossible.”

Change is possible - and it happens when the circumstances are right.

One participant asked: “What can one actively do to challenge the system from within?” During Slater’s time in the civil service, he sought to engage in debates around challenging the status quo as much as possible. While accepting that change at the individual-level is difficult, senior grade civil servants can lead by example, he said.

Accountability in the policy profession
In addition to advocating for a culture change, Slater argued for a change in the accountability regime in the civil service. One participant - a researcher in CSaP’s network - expressed disappointment that much of the evidence generated by her team is often not incorporated into policy and she wondered how else might accountability in the civil service be achieved? Slater said it can be achieved by opening up the policymaking process, for example, by ensuring that policy is scrutinised in public, in front of a parliamentary select committee.

It’s much more uncomfortable having to answer questions in public about whether what we’ve proposed actually will make a difference, but leads to much better policy.

The discussion between Slater and the participants explored issues central to the functioning of the civil service: accountability, new models of leadership, and cultures that hamper progress, among others. 'Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine' both identifies the inadequacies in Whitehall’s policymaking and puts forth a set of solutions that aims to change culture, increase transparency, and ensure accountability.

Mr Jack Byrne

Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE)