7 April 2011

The UK Civil Service is undergoing major change. At the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) in March, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude and his supporting officials said that they were seeking “intense change” and a “dramatic change in culture”. “The civil service will inevitably become much smaller, flatter and less hierarchical, as it should do.” The intention is to centralise the way senior officials work.

A report is that there was quite a lively debate about whether the ‘change programme’ would be successful without some sort of plan. The Minister and his officials, including Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, said that there was “no blueprint” and they proposed to implement the changes “for the first time without a White Paper”, although there would shortly be a White Paper on Public Sector Reform. “A lot of this is just common sense – not revolution”. They wanted to “reduce the audit culture which stops good as well as bad things”. And budget cuts would invigorate the service by encouraging innovation.

The PASC members were sceptical. Surely every successful change programme needed to be planned? “Having a plan is an act of leadership.” In response, senior official Ian Watmore declared that he was a change expert, recruited from the private sector, and saw no need for a plan. An example of a good but unplanned change would be that civil servants would now be encouraged to work in temporary project teams, rather than in fixed hierarchies. Gus O’Donnell added that “change will only be successful if it is being done by them, not to them”,

The NZ State Services code of conduct requires that we are responsible in what we do and how we use agency resources. Guidance on Understanding the code of conduct refers to the statutory duty to be efficient, effective and economical, but doesn’t explicitly refer to a need to plan the way we work. Is it responsible to undertake major change without a plan?