13 December 2011 

A LSE blog entry last week by Prof Colin Talbot explores the changing leadership structure of the British civil service. Sir Gus O’Donnell, who has always shown an interest in the sharp end of government, frequently visiting “front offices”, is being succeeded in office by three people. Referred to often by his initials, GOD is being replaced by a trinity of officials.

The Head of the Civil Service role is being structured more around policy and less around making things work. That contrasts with O’Donnell who is renowned for a drive to put “policy into action”. He has been an enthusiast for enthusing others. The “4 Ps” was his mantra “pride , passion, pace and professionalism”. That expression was replicated in guidance issued by the State Services Commissioner to explain the meaning of the standard that “we must work to the best of our abilities”. But O’Donnell’s propensity to engage with the operational parts of the the civil service has not been replicated in New Zealand by State Services Commissioners who traditionally have a strategy focus.

State Services Commissioners “do” policy. They don’t do implementation and none recently has any depth of experience in “actually running things”. The key to ‘mplementation is getting the policy right in the first place. The blog writer reflects the Henry Minzberg view that there is no such thing as bad implementation, just bad strategy. You can’t make good policy without knowing thoroughly what the implementation issues are going to be, and for that you need strong input from people with experience of actually doing it. That seems to be something being recognised in SSC Performance Improvement Framework reviews of agencies.

The role split in Britain is seen as a way of getting operational skill into top management. The Cabinet Secretary task goes to a long time policy adviser. The leadership role as ‘Head of the Civil Service’ goes to a hands on manager who will continue “in his day job” as Head of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Another operationally focused officer, currently heading the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform group, will be Head of the Cabinet Office.

Talbot observes that the UK political class is increasingly characterised by people who only have policy experience and have never run anything. Moves to balance this by appointing very senior civil servants with real managerial experience has been glacially slow.

The default ethos in Britain is that “it is policy that really matters.” That may not be the same here, where Ministerial disapproval of policy adviser-numbers suggests that Key administrations are not so keen on policy.