On good authority

The civil service often comes under fire for perceived failings. With yet another election looming, what does that mean for reforming it?

Nov 21 · 8 min read

by Baroness Wolf

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn divided science into “normal periods” and “paradigm shifts”. His theory was that, most of the time, scientists are engaged in relatively small advances (“puzzle-solving”) within a fully agreed framework and understanding of the world. However, at some point, it would become increasingly clear that the framework was not working; the scientific community would be plunged into disagreement and angst until a new paradigm emerged. Think of evolution or Newtonian physics.

Kuhn was remarkable because he understood human psychology. His insights apply in many ways to how we run our government. We constantly question the role of central government, of quangos and public bodies, and of the civil service. There are always projects aimed at reforming them, tweaking them. But this usually takes place within the current model. Of course, there come moments of true change: the creation of the modern civil service; joining the EU; the ability of the House of Commons to overrule the House of Lords. But once institutions emerge, they become enormously sticky. The Supreme Court is a very new institution, but imagine trying to abolish it.

There is currently a lot of talk about a paradigm shift in public services and in government. Having been promised radical change throughout my lifetime, I am pretty sceptical; however, it seems clear to me that whoever wins the next general election will seek serious reform. Leaving the EU certainly requires us to rethink how our government operates, and under what rules. If an incoming government was serious about central government reform, as a prerequisite for systemic change, what might that mean?

I think there are three areas that could and should change: how the machinery approaches its role and responsibilities; how people are trained, appointed and promoted; and who is involved in policy formation and delivery. None involves razing the civil service to the ground, but all would make a difference.

The government machine

I am a crossbencher and I have never been a member of a political party, but I have been deeply involved with policy and policymaking for most of my life. An impartial civil service is central to effective government within a democracy. You have to be able to move, relatively seamlessly, from one democratically elected government to another.

But our current system has made officials too unresponsive to the electorate, and it has given politicians insufficient numbers of people who can drive through their reforms.

One of the things I am always struck by when I talk to government departments is the depth and degree of their producer-orientation. This is most obvious in the use of the term ‘stakeholder’, which is used all the time and means producers. Not the public, who have the biggest stake. Education officials talk about and to teachers and exam boards and people running schools. Environment officials talk about and to farmers and the food business. Housing officials talk about and to developers.

This is not deliberate, just instinctive and self-perpetuating. These are the people the officials know, they are easy to reach and poised to come into the department. These are the contacts civil servants pass on to one another as they move between jobs. If you go through the last 100 press releases from the Department for Education (a part of the civil service that I know particularly well), how many are directed towards the sector, and how many towards the public? If you go on their website, does it tell you anything as a parent? Not really.

Politicians are different. At least they occasionally have to talk to people in their surgeries and — eventually — persuade them to vote for their party. But the disconnect between the civil service and public is a real problem. Officials are professionals who tend to live in certain parts of the country (predominantly London). Their lived experience is one slice of the country, and of course that affects their attitudes and instinctive responses because they are human beings. And they talk, mostly, to people rather like them.

In my view this consistently warps decision-making and advice to ministers. If you wanted small tweaks, you would require every civil servant above a certain grade to attend focus groups on a regular basis. Larger scale, you would seek to reorient departments’ focus ruthlessly towards users of a service, and the people who pay for them. If you were being really radical, you would look at how to incorporate the jury principle — of randomly selected members of the public — into more decision-making in government.

Incoming ministers tend to be pleasantly surprised by their civil servants. ‘Our wonderful civil servants’ is a phrase used with conviction, not just as an expected trope. And of course, they are wonderful in many ways: whatever the party in power, they look after ‘their’ ministers, they produce papers and briefings on any topic that emerges, they are behind them in those sessions at the dispatch box which, to an onlooker, appear utterly terrifying.

But the current system is crazy. I know this is a cliché, but that does not stop it being true: in what other area would you expect a CEO to come in and have no power over who works for him, how, and in what positions? And how can it possibly be right that the only people likely to lose their jobs over failures are one politician and maybe two advisers who are expected to sit on top of an enormous machine and direct it effectively? As government gets bigger and bigger, we have to address these issues of responsibility and accountability.

Knowledge, not skills

Those who follow education developments will know there has been a major debate in recent decades over the value of knowledge compared with ‘transferable skills’. That debate has become more sophisticated over the past few years because of our increasing understanding of the human brain: how it absorbs information, how it learns and how it becomes ‘expert’. What we have discovered is that skills are much less transferable than we thought.

In some ways this is obvious. If you put a chess grandmaster into a GP surgery, their ability to think critically does not mean you want them to treat you, even if they have access to the internet. Or, to give another example, to effectively compare and contrast the merits of two different Brexit deals, it turns out you need to know a lot about how trade works, as well as how countries work. It takes a long time to absorb and apply such in-depth information; it is not something you can do by simply spending a bit of time online.

Yet the civil service, in my experience, continues to value ‘general skills’ over specific expertise to an excessive degree. It even trains people on that basis, while trying to encourage the opposite in our schools. And when Whitehall brings in outside ‘expertise’, it is all too often from general-purpose consulting firms, full of energetic, clever and generally rather young people who are also generalists (and very like the civil servants they deal with).

We have long careers, and you can of course become expert in more than one area. There is huge value in being, in general, someone who reads widely and is curious about lots of areas (as Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner have demonstrated with their book on superforecasters). But Whitehall simply does not value knowledge nearly enough. It expects everyone who succeeds to be good at management, able to swap areas and departments effortlessly, and to be simultaneously pleasant and incisive. These demands mean that those with ‘spiky’ profiles — and those who really know the areas — are often buried far deeper than they should be.

The problem is compounded by the constant movement of people between divisions and departments, and the fact that such movement is central to career advancement. When government is moderately stable — as during the 2010–15 coalition — ministers can rapidly find that they have longer experience of a particular policy area than do their senior officials. I have just been a member of the independent panel for the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding, led by Philip Augar (which produced the Augar report). The team of officials that supported the review developed specialist knowledge and are now, of course, being scattered not merely across the Department for Education but across Whitehall. So if a future government decides to implement the review’s recommendations, that knowledge will be gone.

The role of the outsider

In some cases, individual politicians have managed to achieve substantial change, directly or through their use of outsiders. In education, the area I know best, Andrew Adonis is an obvious example, and so is Michael Gove. I was one of the beneficiaries of Gove’s approach. He asked me to review vocational education, he accepted my recommendations, and these were implemented more or less in their entirety. Leaving aside whether they were correct (and I of course think they were), what lessons are there here?

I think there are two. First, you need outsiders who are passionate and expert. I do not mean that officials are indifferent. But the mindset that allows you to move from, say, reversing nationalisation to delivering it wholeheartedly, is quite different from that of an academic or practitioner with a particular worldview formed by long experience of a particular field. You need both.

Second — and crucially — you need to embed those outsiders for a while. Why was my review implemented when the general view is that reviews languish and perish? Because for a year after the report was published I worked closely with civil servants in the Department for Education. I was embedded. Many of the implementation team came to the task fresh and had no real sense of why the review had been commissioned or why it had come to its conclusions. As that year went by, people in the team came and went. But throughout, I was around to interpret, explain, nag and, on occasion, to the team’s benefit, go direct to the top. That was and is a ridiculously rare approach.

So, three changes: how the civil service views its responsibilities; what kind of qualifications and experience we look for in civil servants; and who is involved in creating and delivering policy. All are potentially transformative and all require some pretty sustained and detailed attention. Am I optimistic? Not very; but then, as Kuhn points out, things always seem fixed and normal until, suddenly, they are not.

Alison Wolf is Professor the Baroness Wolf of Dulwich. A Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, she has long focused on education and is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2019

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.


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