26 September 2023

UNITED KINGDOM: PS urged to reassert its voice

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With the Boris Johnson era in the United Kingdom coming to a close, the Institute for Government has produced a report urging Public Service leaders to reassert their voices.

“They must assert how best to run the institution, set a clear purpose and learn – and be seen to learn – from the nadir of Partygate,” the Institute said in its report.

“Failure to do so could tip a battered and bruised institution into crisis and lead to a loss of capacity in what the State can deliver.”

Report author, Alex Thomas said the Public Service’s crucial role had been weakened by high-profile policy and operational failures like the evacuation from the Afghan capital of Kabul and pandemic contingency plans — as well as being damaged by the Partygate fallout.

“This comes alongside strained relations with a Government at times seeking to scapegoat Civil Servants and wrongly confusing honest advice with disloyalty,” Mr Thomas said.

“The demise of that Government will not remove all these concerns overnight,” he said.

“With officials having to respond to Boris Johnson’s anarchic approach to governing and some Ministers uninterested in getting the best out of Civil Servants, this paper calls on Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case to grip the Civil Service reform agenda.”

Mr Thomas said this involved speaking on the record about the risks of incoherent Government plans for arbitrary headcount targets, and crude tactics to shame workers back into the office.

However, he said Mr Case and other senior officials must also address the bureaucracy’s own failings.

“There must be a return to a serious program of Government reform, including reviews of Departments to assess their strengths and weaknesses and a proper workforce plan to work out the right size and shape for the Civil Service,” Mr Thomas said.

“Permanent Secretaries can then be better held to account for running their organisations.”

London, 12 July 2022

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