Civil Service Reform

Today, I'm leading a debate in the House of Commons on Civil Service reform.  This may sound a dry topic, but I believe that overhauling the machinery of government is essential.  Our system of public administration, designed in the 19th Century, is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country.

Modern governments face immense fiscal pressures, a rising demand for services, growing public expectations, and the need to improve international competitiveness.  But all have found difficulty in matching strategic vision with execution.

One administration after another has encountered problems delivering major projects, often arising from inadequate skills and confused accountabilities.  Think of the West Coast Mainline debacle, which saw at least £50million wasted in flawed commissioning.

Long-term challenges require joined-up policy, yet the traditional organisation of government creates fiercely separate departments, and financial control is weak.

The consequences of sub-optimal government go beyond the financial costs.  The weakest pay the highest price, and when public confidence in the ability of government to deliver is persistently undermined, faith in politics is eroded.

Significant attempts have been made by successive governments to improve delivery and performance.  But problems remain while the pressures grow.  Tomorrow's government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better able to organise itself to meet societal challenges, and more responsive to citizens.

So the time has come to take a fresh look at how government is organised, reassess the balance between central and local power, and consider more radical options to improve the skills and accountability needed in today's Whitehall. 

To seize this opportunity, I have this week launched a new project, GovernUp, backed by senior politicians of all parties, former civil servants, Whitehall advisers and business leaders.  Its mission is to analyse the problems, challenge the terms of debate, and consider the far-reaching reforms needed in Whitehall and beyond.

One policy which I've championed, and which has been led by the Cabinet Office Minister, Horsham MP Francis Maude, points the way.  Extended ministerial offices now allow ministers to bring in outside talent to strengthen their teams.  This already happens in Australia and Canada.

The next government is going to have to make further spending reductions whether it likes it or not.  Achieving better results with less money means that more effective and efficient government must now be at the top of the agenda.

Christopher N Howarth