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Unlock the productive potential of our country” is the often repeated mantra during Boris Johnson’s General Election campaign as he promised to press the release button, ‘levelling-up’ a post-Brexit Britain. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has had concentric circles of impact, sending shock waves across society and government. New problems, new priorities, new policies. “The machinery of government is no longer equal to the challenges of today”, declared Michael Gove at the annual Ditchley Lecture in June. With the opportunity the pandemic has presented to reshape government and with a large parliamentary majority, how can the government unlock the productive potential of the Civil Service in a post-Brexit and post-pandemic Britain? 

The Civil Service, historically regarded as an exemplar of democratic administration, has neglected to evolve to the dynamism of the 21st Century. Criticism is not new. Gove merely echoed the findings of the Fulton report, commissioned by Harold Wilson in 1968. This report critiqued the lack of relevant academic and policy expertise at managerial level, limited communication between the government and the public and the overlooking of scientists and engineers for positions of authority. Over four decades later, and despite piecemeal reform, these statements are still listed as critiques of the government machine. A recent report published by the Institute for Government identifies key problems at the centre of government; blurred lines of responsibility, lack of skills and excessive turnover of staff, hazy performance measurement, weaknesses of long-term planning, risk avoidance, lack of diversity and structural problems beyond Whitehall. 

The pandemic has exposed and amplified these shortcomings. Yet it has also provided the impetus and opportunity for major reform.  As the government unleashes its pandemic recovery plan, aiming to deliver reform across the economy, education, the environment, international development, housing and digital infrastructure, there is a recognition that change must also come from within. 

Early signs show the will of this government to enact significant change. It is no secret of Dominic Cummings’ desire to send seismic shocks through Whitehall, stating just last month that “a hard rain is coming” to political aides after detailing the inadequacies of an incoherent Cabinet Office. The announcement of the merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, albeit controversial, provides the potential to rethink Britain’s development and diplomatic structure, strategy and delivery. Even more recently, the government’s shock decision to axe Public Health England, forming a new agency to coordinate pandemic response. Whilst allowing for a more coherent structure to be formed, the change cannot enable government to scapegoat PHE for failings during the pandemic.   

There have undoubtedly been many welcomed changes to the Civil Service; a greater number of women rising to top tier jobs, increasing ethnic diversity and variety of thought, and broadening the geographical location of civil servants, helping to bolster the provincial economy. Successful steps have been made to recruit talented individuals from diverse backgrounds to better reflect the society that the institution serves. Yet more needs to be done to ensure the retention of diversity at more senior levels. The government should further tackle the shortcomings of a departmental system, or Whitehall ‘fiefdoms’, where problems that stretch across boundaries are often neglected. The pandemic has sharpened the focus on accountability and effectiveness of government. State Secretaries and Ministers must capitalise on this with the formation of dialogue both within and outside Whitehall, taking their heads out of the sand to listen to criticism and innovative ideas from diverse viewpoints. 

To realise its potential, the government must implement tougher performance measurements. According to Gove, out of the 108 major programmes the government is responsible for, only 8% are currently assessed on their effective implementation. Tight deadlines, the hunger of new policy announcements and detachment between management and delivery teams contribute to this. Last year the Treasury announced the Public Value Framework to measure the effectiveness of public spending and success profiling across the departments. Yet its one-size-fits all approach reduces its applicability and effectiveness across the 44 ministerial and non-ministerial departments. 

The pandemic has impacted every corner of society, and its recovery provides the opportunity to re-think. Re-think economic structuring, rethink environmental action, re-think social welfare systems and re-think the government machine. The challenge is how we manage the upward curve of the change process in order for every section of government to realise its full potential in its service to the public. It is no easy feat, made harder by cuts to departmental budgets. Yet with action focused dialogue, vertically and horizontally across Whitehall, further progress can be made to capitalize on its talent and success to further unleash the productive potential of the Civil Service. 

Felicity is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: nataliej]