NZ public service reform for the UK?

It’s not unusual for governments to decide the solution to their frustrations is to tweak the machinery of government.  Nor for senior public servants to channel those ambitions to safety.

But things look more serious in the UK.  A sequence of reports from high-powered ‘independent’ commissions and well-connected think tanks are floating proposals which bear more than a resemblance to the state sector reforms implemented in New Zealand at the end of last century.

For one of the key players, the seeds of change were planted back in 2010. Back then, Michael Gove (now the Minister for the Cabinet Office) was put in charge of education.  He coined the term ‘the Blob’ to describe the coalition of resistant civil servants and external ideologists who opposed his proposals to change the school system.  And helping him on the Blob job was Dominic Cummings – PM Boris Johnson’s erstwhile chief strategist.

Gove’s experience was that unsympathetic civil servants drafting rules was less effective than putting believers in the right roles to drive change (in this case using an inspectorate to put pressure on the head teachers and staff of inadequate schools).

But one minister does not a reform make.  The proximate driver for the Johnson government has been the Brexit experience – and in particular the failure of the civil service to understand the implications of the Brexit vote and develop an appropriate policy.  It doesn’t help that this political and strategic failure was shared with ministers; indeed, that is why you have high-class civil servants.

The Covid pandemic may also have accelerated ministerial urgency to reform.  While some aspects, like the vaccination project, have deepened the relationship with ministers, the overall mark is probably in the region of ‘could do better’.

The proposals being floated seem familiar to anyone versed in NZ’s State Sector Act, right down to the renaming of permanent secretaries as chief executives, to reinforce a clearer accountability framework.  Ditto for making the appointment process more open to outsiders and those with external skills.

The proposal to co-locate ministers to break down departmental boundaries will resonate with New Zealanders with Whitehall experience, who will remember their initial surprise at the isolation of British ministers in their departmental headquarters.  Though the Beehive experience shows that being in close proximity is not an infallible cure for intra-government wrangling.

Machinery-cum-process changes include a proper Prime Minister’s Department to co-ordinate and a Treasury Board to integrate financial planning and oversee spending. Plus there is the usual sensible stuff about training and more specialisation in professional roles like HR, finance and procurement.

The impact of structural change may turn out to be less dramatic than currently suggested, if only because the UK’s public sector has already travelled some way towards these goals – albeit in an organic low-key British way.  Veterans of Gordon Brown’s years at Her Majesty’s Treasury, for example, might see his integration of policy reform with spending decisions as a precursor of any Treasury Board.  

But Boris and his colleagues have had sufficient disagreeable experience with the mandarinate to make some change, particularly of unwelcome faces, seem likely.

Expectations should be kept in check.  While machinery of government is important, effectiveness comes mostly from policy.  And as Boris, his ministers and his current (and potential) advisers seem comfortable with the current fad of governments picking winners, we will have to judge by the results.

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