Reform should not be detached from wider purpose

By Jessica Studdert | 02 April 2024

The question of civil service reform has rumbled on over the years. Jacob Rees- Mogg sought to cut the workforce by a fifth. Dominic Cummings promised ‘hard rain’ on what he saw as a bureaucracy captured by metropolitan groupthink. The Maude Review of the civil service concluded governance arrangements and accountability were ‘unclear, opaque and incomplete’.

Yet rarely do reform proposals consider the perspective of other tiers of government. The recent Institute for Government Commission on the Centre of Government called for the No10, Treasury and Cabinet Office triumvirate to be strengthened, in part to create confidence to devolve further. But there has been less focus on how the wider civil service might more effectively intersect with sub-national counterparts.

On a practical level, the civil service’s tendency towards generalist skills and high churn of officials intensifies the fragmentation across departments. Officially ‘overseen’ by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, council delivery cuts across social care, education and the environment – issues covered by departments which are not responsible for, or engaged with the reality of, local funding sufficiency.

In terms of delivery, impact is weakened by the assumption the civil service does policy and that councils implement.

This separation involves limited feedback loops and policy is often extremely spatially insensitive. Differential impacts, such as low attainment rates in some regions, are too often priced in as inevitable.

As devolution matures, the role of the centre and its interface with regions and localities must shift. Reform should not be detached from wider purpose: for example, ad hoc civil service office relocations haven’t shifted an overall central grip on process.

The civil service should evolve in the context of a clear wider direction of travel towards empowered localities and robust, devolved regional settlements.

Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive at New Local

X – @jesstud

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