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UK: Yes, the Civil Service Needs to Improve – But Radical Reform Is Not the Way
Source: Publicservice.co.uk, http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=22610
Source Date: Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Focus: Institution and HR Management
Country: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irela
Created: Apr 24, 2013

Behind the negative headlines, dedicated public servants are operating in an exceptionally challenging environment, says Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union

A world-class civil service is critical for delivering world-class public services and efficient, effective government. It matters because it forms the bedrock of our democracy: it makes government work, makes policy real and changes people's lives. It is hugely important for us all that our civil service works effectively in the national interest.

Although the current civil service is under severe pressure, it is not broken. Neither is it perfect. The FDA is not resistant to change: we share the aspiration of a better civil service – a world-class civil service. But we think an approach based on learning from experience and continuous improvement – rather than a stark choice of radical reform or no reform at all – is the way to achieve that. This is the approach we advocate in our alternative White Paper, 'Delivering for the Nation: Securing a World-Class Civil Service', which was launched in Parliament on 24 April.

The FDA has always cared about our public services, as well as our public servants. It is literally part of the union's founding principles: "to promote the efficiency of the public service" is how it was described nearly a century ago and we have been dealing with reform ever since.

But all too often now, the debate about modernising the civil service is framed within negative headlines. There have been suggestions of obstructionism and a considerable part of the recent Parliamentary debate has focused on the issue of permanent secretary appointments and the accountability of the most senior officials.

Meanwhile, in the day-to-day real world, the civil service is made up of dedicated and highly-skilled public servants who are really committed to 'Delivering for the Nation'. In the real world, civil servants are operating in an exceptionally challenging environment of diminishing resources, radical change, and pay levels that have fallen dramatically behind the market.

Civil servants are not "faceless bureaucrats" but real people striving every day to serve the government and the public. They include those who stop tax evasion, prosecute criminals, improve the performance of schools, represent our national interests abroad and protect our borders. These are just a few of the key public service occupations that the FDA represents, as well as those who provide support and advice to Ministers, the "Mandarins" as the press love to describe them.

The FDA is keen to ensure that there is a longer term, more strategic debate about reform of the civil service, that is built on a shared analysis of the challenges facing the civil service and which looks at building political consensus on what needs to be done to achieve effective civil service reform. 

By 2015, matching resources to workload will be profoundly challenging. To ensure that it can 'Deliver for the Nation' the civil service must have the skills it needs for a changing environment and expectations, but it is also imperative that there is clarity on what it is expected to do.

Our alternative White Paper proposals are therefore designed to deliver improvement and progress on a range of issues. We advocate a considered evolutionary approach based on three core principles, which we hope can secure support across all political parties:

• the starting point for reform must be a proper appraisal of the challenges the civil service faces, the skills that are required and the resources required to deliver policy commitments;
• that we must learn from experience and expertise and build on the many examples of success rather than focus on occasional failure; and
• that the process of reform can only really succeed if there is respect on both sides: respect by civil servants for the extremely difficult and changed role of Ministers and respect by politicians for civil servants' unique and complex role in policy development and implementation.

Our paper sets 20 recommendations over three broad themes: equipping the civil service to deliver in the modern context; getting accountability and impartiality right; and how to improve morale and motivation.

We make recommendations on improving the skills of minsters as well as civil servants, on better ways to hold the government and civil servants to account and on improving the morale and performance of senior public servants.

The White Paper is only the first step in our campaign. The FDA wants to work with those who share our passion for improving the civil service, public service delivery and the working lives of civil servants. We will continue to present evidence and recommendations to inform and influence the debate on how a world class civil service can be secured and critically, to ensure that reform is influenced by those whose commitment and professionalism deliver the services on which the public relies.

The FDA is the union for senior managers and professionals in the public service.

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