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Saving the tigers of Whitehall

There about as many tigers in the wild as there are senior Civil Servants in the UK. This is my favourite fact of 2016.

There are around 3,600 to be more precise; less than 1% of the civil service’s total strength. In military rank terms, they are the generals; too vital to be placed on the battlefield, kept behind to push units round maps with a croupier stick. The SCS is not quite a mythologised world, but it does retain some apartness, a clubability; the perpertuation of an officer class mentality that sits slightly away from the rank and file.

I was a senior civil servant for a year or so. I did not get a croupier stick.

Some of what I felt during that year came rushing back when I got involved in a Twitter exchange with Oliver Morley, Chief Executive of the DVLA. I had written some things about digital service design. He pointed out that being transformative and designing new services is easy to argue from the trenches, but ultimately it is Accounting Officers— the people at the top who get dragged in front of Select Committees — who personally front up the risk of taking it on. Too often, the calculations do not look good enough for them to be bold. He’s right.

Not long before Christmas, data from the Civil Service People survey (Whitehall’s annual gripe barometer) was published. It included little of interest — officials feel pretty much exactly the same as they felt last year.

Apart from, that is, on their views of senior managers. A new set of questions, designed to test the impact of the new Leadership Statement, made for fairly grim reading. Less than four in ten said the SCS inspired people to do their best. There were beggarly returns on modelling good behaviour, empowering people to do their job effectively or leading with confidence. Considered collectively, the senior management of the civil service is failing against its own measures. It’s hard to imagine a more dismaying judgment on a management cadre. The Cabinet Secretary wrote a blog post agreeing with this.

So, the SCS are derided from above and below. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Who would want to be a senior civil servant charged with digital transformation?

The last few weeks have brought this problem in to sharper relief, following the multi billion-pound bet made on digital in the Spending Round.

Like all bureaucracies, the Civil Service is an institution built to make change difficult. Etch-a-Sketch government, wiping the slate at every revolution of the political cycle, is impossible. However, transformation of any flavour is doomed without leaders who understand both the why and the how, and can carry others with them. We desperately need such people.

Unfortunately, what has often been missed in the government’s digital story to date is that this kind of leadership is a two-way street. Teams that I’ve worked in or alongside — particularly in digital and technology, but also in policy and elsewhere — have fallen into a trap of seeing senior leadership as something that is done to them. Like weather or public transport, it’s just a fact of life; uncontrollable, presumed to disappoint, very occasionally a source of pleasant surprises.

Teams in government trying to do the right thing in a different way need to have some empathy for those at the top of their organisations. Senior individuals are dealing with political and media figures who may have little to no interest in offering anything constructive about sensible new ideas. They’re managing ambitious personalities. They have very little time to read or think. They have few opportunities to admit ignorance or weakness. They will be worrying about least one, and probably many, pressing crises that need solutions in the next 48 hours. They will probably have at least one peer elsewhere in government who is responsible for a similar or overlapping role.

In such an environment, it is all too easy to imagine how quickly one might feel like a caged tiger, powerless to do anything except gnaw on the easy meat of vetoing anything threatening.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy of course. Understanding the opinions of senior officials doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them, particularly if their views are profoundly inert. But those leading the charge for meeting public needs more effectively — from within and without — should remember that the average digital service designer sometimes has more control over their own destiny than the average senior civil servant.

If teams keep their end of the deal by making the effort to empathise with what Accounting Officers live with, those Officers tasked with transformation over the next parliament need to actively work at making their roles more achievable.

There are lots of things that could help them. Making more real-time performance data freely available could make public scrutiny a more democratic exercise, and less a series of parliamentary and media set pieces, complete with stocks and ducking stool. Pushing formal accountability nearer to the front-line might shrink the briefing machines and expose evangelists to harsh realities. Being open and honest on social media could win converts and help inspire allies. Giving senior leaders (and Ministers, for that matter) time — sabbaticals, flexible working, banning meetings on Tuesday mornings, whatever — to think, to read, to digest, could help.

I’m confident most of these ideas are unrealistic and unworkable. However, it’s equally naive to think that anything other than creative, disruptive efforts by those at the top, backed by the people who work for them, will make for successful transformation of bureaucracies.

At some point, the tigers may have to change their stripes.

@ad_greenway