What do civil service reforms mean for charity influencing?

Earlier this week Michael Gove gave a speech setting out the government’s reasoning for, and approach to civil service reform. It’s been widely known for some time that the government was likely to reshape the civil service, particularly to anyone brushing up on the old blogs of Dominic Cummings. 

One of the central themes of the speech is one that charities have themselves been grappling with in recent years with Mr Gove asking of government:

  • Can we prove that we’ve made a difference?
  • Can we demonstrate the effectiveness of what we’ve done with other people’s money?
  • Can we prove that the regulations and agencies we’ve established have made clear, demonstrable, measurable, improvements to the lives of others?
  • Can we prove that in a way our fellow citizens can recognise and appreciate?

Those are important questions to ask, and charities which have pioneered new approaches to problems and effectively measured their impact, will welcome the idea that the civil service would be more open to new ideas and approaches.  

Practical changes 

Most of the reforms outlined in the speech are around recruiting and deploying the right people rather than structures. More civil servants will be expected to have a stronger grasp of maths, science and statistics to help better evaluate policy.

It’s suggested that officials will be expected to become and remain experts on fewer areas, rather than the current practice of regularly being transferred across departments into new roles. 

Many charities will be aware of the frustrations of frequent changes in staff, just at the point that you have built a good relationship. But it may also mean there are fewer opportunities to build new relationships with people who might be prepared to think differently. 

Groupthink 

Some charities, especially those based in London even though they operate nationally, might feel that they’re in Mr Gove’s sights. With criticisms of ‘think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan’, and cautions against politicians seeing “pressure group plaudits” alone as a sign of success.  

Within this is something many in the sector would recognise and applaud, a move away from our interactions with government being based on polished professionalism. One where we’re able to speak more authentically about, and alongside, those we seek to represent.

However there is understandable cynicism that rather than an attempt to create truly diverse decision-making structures, this is more about remaking the civil service in the government’s own image. 

New names at the top 

The main news accompanying these reforms is that cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is to stand down, as it became apparent his relationship with key people in government has broken down. As the Institute for Government has set out, this does provide the opportunity for a new start.

Initially, some of this will be about removing staff seen as blockers to their agenda and replacing with those whose views and approach are more in line with the government. 

The appointment of David Frost as national security adviser has raised some questions over whether this is really a move towards employing greater expertise or more about finding faces who fit. Initially at least, this looks more like a continued movement towards political appointments within the civil service rather than a revolution in the role and expertise of civil servants. 

A new cabinet secretary will be appointed in due course, and they’ll clearly be a key figure in how successful these reforms are. 

What does it mean for charities seeking to influence policy?

Many charities will welcome an approach more focused on what works. If reform genuinely opens up opportunities for those currently overlooked, that’ll undoubtedly be a good thing. 

Being able to build longer-term relationships with genuine experts in the civil service could help to cement the role of charities in policy-making. As long as those officials can manage the different expectations of providing deep expertise, while not being part of the status quo and a culture of groupthink. 

But crucially senior civil servants will surely be thinking about the implications of being seen to be part of the old civil service guard, and dismissive of aspects of the government’s agenda.

In my experience most civil servants have a sense of the politics behind decisions, or at least are seeking to find ways to implement the government’s publicly stated agenda. However it could mean a civil service in which the sharper political operators, or those more aligned with the government, are those who are promoted to more senior positions. 

On the face of it, this is a movement towards the importance of evidence and impact. However, it could mean that charities in practice will still need to be on top of the political implications and the internal scheming of government if they want to be able to influence policy. 

 

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Chris Walker Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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