Comment – Keep the civil service in context.

The civil service costs some £20bn a year to run. It manages over 40% of GDP and affects the lives of all of us. Even the Queen pays tax. So it’s odd that it tends to be well down on the scale of news-worthiness. Only when things go wrong do we really hear about it. Thus it’s not surprising that the programme set out by Sir Richard Wilson, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, just before Christmas attracted so very little attention. In any case it scarcely appears revolutionary. What it proposed appears to be, and indeed is, part of the same sort of worthy thing the civil service has been tackling for many years now – better representation of minorities at the top, more exchange between public and private sectors, less security of tenure and more reward for the best performance, even new management techniques and application, and so on. Good stuff as far as it goes. But none of it lives up to the hype which came out beforehand when we were told, among other things, that ‘Sir Humphrey is dead’. One thing that is clear from the Wilson Agenda is that Sir Humphrey is very much alive and well; the turkeys have postponed Christmas. Be all that as it may, this may produce a better machine taken on its own. The real gap is that there is no context. The civil service does not exist for its own sake. It is an overhead for the State and like all overheads should be kept as small and economical as possible, while staying relevant and effective to the precise needs it’s called on to meet. These needs are framed by the trio of ministers, the Treasury and parliament, all in various ways, on behalf of the public. They vary enormously between different departments and agencies, and of course, over time. And they can be delivered in a great variety of ways, up to and including privatisation. In recent years the twin objectives of keeping the needs to be met in mind, together with flexibility and adaptability to meet the huge variety of tasks to be delivered, have been the basis of civil service development and reform. And we have all benefited from the improvements – generally speaking – which these reforms have provided. Perhaps the Wilson Agenda will support and develop this way forward. But there is a smell of tidy-mindedness and centralisation about it, which is worrying and which we need to watch out for. We must not go backwards. – Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management.

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