The Thick of It, a Better Civil Service for Wales

In his blog yesterday, Gareth Hughes mentioned one of the conspicuous omissions from the new Programme for Government published by Carwyn Jones.

It contained many worthy aspirations, but the one major area that might determine whether his programme sinks or swims was missing. In Labour's manifesto they had the intention:

"to review and seek realignment of the governance and performance of the Assembly civil service, better to reflect the developing requirements of devolution whilst remaining part of the Home Civil Service."

Now it wasn't by chance that this appeared in the manifesto. It wasn't one of these meaningless commitments thrown into bulk out the document. It was heartfelt. It appeared because many ministers in the last government felt that the civil service was "not fit for purpose." Not up to the job, but Ministers weren't able to do anything about it. Hence, their determination to change things. They really thought that if it went into the manifesto it would happen.

But today, nothing, not a whisper. Oh, never underestimate the basic conservative instinct of civil servants.

Sir Humphrey has ensured that his comfortable little number will not be scruninized by the Hackers of this world. How confident can Carwyn Jones be that his “Progamme for Government” will be met if it’s left to an unreformed civil service to carry out?

Gareth Hughes, 27 September 2011

My reaction to this omission is, as people might expect, a little different. If all you have to offer is a lacklustre set of proposals, it probably helps to be able to blame someone other than yourself for the lack of ambition behind them. Who better to blame than the Civil Service? They're hardly the best loved of public servants, anyway.


And yet—by one of those coincidences that can only be described as excruciatingly embarrassing rather than merely unfortunate—on the very same day that Labour in Wales admitted that they aren't going to bother to try and make the Civil Service work better for Wales, a report has been published showing how the Civil Service in Scotland has been successfully transformed, and transformed for the better. Click the image to download it.


The report was written by Sir John Elvidge, who is the former permanent secretary to the Scottish government. This is a short summary of it from eGovmonitor:

Scottish Government Leads the Way on Radical Civil Service Reforms in the UK - New Paper

Whitehall can learn more from the successes of the civil services reform north of the border in Edinburgh, a new paper from the Institute for Government (IfG) written by Sir John Elvidge, former permanent secretary to the Scottish government has claimed.

In his paper, Northern Exposure: Lessons from the first twelve years of devolved government in Scotland, he articulates how he as the senior most civil servant in Scotland worked with the minority SNP government, to radically transform the structure of government so it works together around a "common national purpose". These measures included reducing the number of ministers and abolishing departments and aligning the whole Scottish public sector around a single framework of national purpose – whose outcomes would be tracked and measured: "at the heart of [this] was the concept of government as a single organisation ... the idea of "joined up government taken to its logical conclusion".

In stark contrast to the Whitehall civil servants who were criticised recently by a Parliamentary Committee for lack of inertia and flexibility, the Elvidge paper praises the civil servants in Scotland for the role they played in the reforms. "As well as providing essential continuity of understanding about the processes of government, it has displayed agility and energy in assisting the adaptation of that understanding to fresh challenges," he said.

He says the model of Scottish government structure reforms was based on "an explicit rejection of departmentalism as a basis for effective government and involves the abolition of a departmental structure within the Scottish government."

"In partnership between civil service and political leadership, a radical Scottish model of government has developed since 2007, building on the learning from the earlier period of devolution. It is based on the effort to have government function as a single organisation, working towards a single defined government purpose based on outcomes, and establishing a partnership based on that purpose with the rest of the public sector which is capable of being joined by other parts of civil society," he wrote. "It places strategic leadership and the facilitation of co-operation between organisations and sections of society at the heart of the role of central government, rather than a managerialist view of the relationship of central government to others."

The former top civil servant in Scotland highlighted the role played by the Scottish public leadership forum, which brings together all Scottish public sector leaders, in ensuring the changes were not just limited to Edinburgh. He argues "my central proposition is that we are making less use than we could and should within the UK of the opportunities for transferable learning from the experience of devolution."

Lord Adonis, the former Labour Cabinet Minister and now the Director of the IfG echoed his thoughts and said the Scottish model does offer a successful alternative and it's time for Whitehall to "wake up to the changes" north of the border in Scotland.

eGovmonitor, 27 September 2011

I can only echo that alarm call. Wake up, Carwyn. If you swallow your pride for long enough to read what has happened in another devolved administration, or take any pride in the idea of a similar "common national purpose" for Wales, you might learn about some practical ways to implement what you said you wanted to do in your party's manifesto.

It appears to me that this is exactly what we in Wales need. Not just as an effective way of implementing policy, but a more efficient way of doing it.

It is also worth pointing out that Scotland does not have a separate Civil Service (although Northern Ireland does) but shares a common Home Civil Service with us in Wales and with Whitehall. So implementing changes of this sort does not require any constitutional change, and therefore is in line with your manifesto commitment. It just requires reorganization to move away from the departmental rivalries and entrenched interests that characterize the way Whitehall works. Make no mistake, we in Plaid Cymru would want to go further, but this would be a very big step in the right direction.

And, in purely practical terms, this model was set up during a period of a minority Scottish government. Therefore these ways of working will be particularly appropriate for the difficulties your current minority government is inevitably going to face in Wales. So don't use the Civil Service as an excuse, Carwyn. Make it work for Wales in the same way as the SNP have made it work for Scotland. If you're prepared to get into the thick of it, you'll certainly have cross-party support from Plaid Cymru.

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Anonymous said...

The civil service yn Wales is totally colonialist in attitude and application. It's inertia is down to a colonial distain towards doing any thing which is too welshie. Any new proposal is viewed as a nuisance, any new proposal which in any way has a Welsh element or dimension is ridiculed and kicked into the long grass because by its very existence it asks and questions the morality and legitimacy of the anglophone civil servant.

The whole ethos of the civil service, not least its staff, has created an atmosphere where the default position is to be hostile to any thing which is too Welsh. Hence the decision by Welsh speaking civil servant in the early days of the Assembly when an opportunity arose for a Welsh top level domain to lobby against it. To be for it would have been too welshie and too risky in the minds of the so called Welsh civil service.

To deal with the civil service in Wales truly feels like gatecrashing a party ... Except the party is in 'our' house and they should be working to promote Wales.

MH said...

I don't think "colonialist" is quite the right word, Anon. But even if it was, it's not particularly helpful.

My point is simply that if Labour thinks it was held back by an unhelpful Civil Service that was "not fit for purpose", then there's nothing to stop them trying to change the way it works so that it is more fit for purpose. The Elvidge report shows that it can be done and how it can be done.

Bear in mind that Andrew Adonis was a Labour minister, and he supports this kind of change and wants to see it happen in Whitehall. I think that expecting things to change in Whitehall is a very big ask because the Civil Service has been around for a very long time and has become set in its ways; and also that unless you are in government it is highly unlikely that you will be able to push through the sort of changes that have happened in Scotland. But Labour are in government in Wales, and therefore can push the changes through, especially because devolved government has only been around for twelve years and has not had time to become set in its ways.

Being charitable, we could say that the Labour Government in Wales didn't include this manifesto commitment in its Programme for Government because they didn't really know how to do what they'd promised. From their point of view it was just a terrible co-incidence that this report came out on the same day. But if they're prepared to swallow a bit of pride, I hope they will see that what the SNP have implemented in Scotland is also suitable for Wales.

But it will leave them with one less potential excuse for any failure to deliver.

Anonymous said...

Carwyn Jones is Leonid Brezhnev.

MH said...

I'm sure that must make some sense, Anon. But please explain it to those of us who aren't in the Politburo.

Anonymous said...

Brezhnev oversaw the governance of decline, economic stagnation, lack of innovation or vision except keeping power for power's sake (Brezhnev/Labour Doctrine?), conservatism with a small c (but keeping with the 'radical' slogans of course - 'eliminating child poverty' in Welsh Labour speak). Stagnation.

USSR GDP went from a comparatively healthy one in the mid 1960s when he came to power to a crippled state by the 1980s.

OK - Carwyn Jones is a much nicer person, he doesn't chuck people in jail etc. So, there's overstating here of course and no offence is meant, but in terms of a lack-lustre, conservative, lack of aspiration and innovation, micro-managing, then, certainly in comparison with Scotland under the SNP, the Welsh Government under Carwyn Jones feels like Brezhnev's decline and inertia.

stishmael said...

When he announced his cabinet in May, Carwyn attributed to himself responsibility for Civil Service REFORM. See: I thought the inclusion of the word "reform" hugely significant at the time although it went without comment from all quarters. On the Welsh Government's website outlining Carwyn's responsibilities (;jsessionid=M5XTTGKLwv797tYs0S2gpqvcz6D8GVTrdRLPm3QZF6zGn6tM5nKh!-1416705544?lang=en) there is no mention of reform, and an extremely limited role described vis-a-vis the civil service. There's a very simple answer. Carwyn has bottled it!

Unknown said...

Is there any need for legislation to effect this change as this would be in effect an administrative re-organisation?

Anonymous said...

I think anyone familiar with the internal workings of the Welsh Government will find this debate highly amusing. I would suggest that the 'new' Scottish model sounds very much like the situation which has always existed in Wales. Whilst there are 'departments' within the Welsh Government, they are nothing like the Whitehall model of government and there is little in the way of 'entrenched rivalries'. The boundaries between them are often fluid and there is an almost constant flow of staff from one to another. In effect, the Welsh Civil Service does operate as 'one government' with a single set of shared goals. It could hardly do otherwise given its small size - it is much smaller than just about any UK department for example. Of course, whether it is successful in delivering its goals is another matter. I'll leave others to make up their own minds on that. Whether the Scottish Executive's civil servants are any better I really couldn't say, but if the meaningless, Sir Humphreyesque guff penned by Elvidge is anything to go by, I very much doubt it.

Anonymous said...

anonomous 2238, the ins and outs of the structures and organisation of the "Welsh" civil service, we may have wrong, but the question remains - do they operate IN the interests of Wales as a political entity and a nation, or do they operate AGAINST it?

Anonymous said...

"Of course, whether it is successful in delivering its goals is another matter. I'll leave others to make up their own minds on that." Or even, the First Minister's Delivery Unit will help us make up our minds, once it emerges bleary eyed from the glacial process of being set up.

Anonymous said...

He's at it again on the BBC today (go to 1.40 ish). Granted it's not as bad as other things he's said but surely- plaid do want more and more devolutioN!?

MH said...

Sorry it's taken me a while to respond to the later comments.

If Anon 22:38 thinks the report is "Sir Humphreyesque guff" he might well be showing that he does know something about the workings of the civil servants in Wales ... and is anxious to resist any change to a system he is used to and comfortable with.

But to the extent that it is a matter of habit and internal culture, what we have is largely a legacy of the old pre-devolution Welsh Office. Of course it's smaller than most Whitehall departments and there is more interchange, but that in itself does not make it fit for purpose.

I would guess that something very similar happened in Scotland after 1999. Civil servants tried to carry the legacy from the Scottish Office into a post-devolution setting. They bungled along for a few years, but it took a fresh approach from the SNP to effect some real change. That is the essence of the Elvidge Report, and only an arrogant fool would think we in Wales had nothing to learn from it.

The bottom line is that if Labour think the present structure is not fit for purpose, they can do something to change it. To answer Siônnyn's point, it won't require legislation. Government is largely free to re-organize the civil service in whatever way it chooses to, and has made frequent changes in the past. But there's all the difference in the world between rearranging deckchairs and having a vision of what you want to achieve. Hopefully the report will provide the current Labour government with some of the vision it lacks ... but giving Carwyn Jones the drive to achieve it is something else again.

Anonymous said...

MH - The point I was making at 22.38 on 29/9 is that there is nothing of substance in the Elvidge report which isn't already in place within the Welsh Government (with the probable exception of the matters relating to pre-election civil service/political party relationships). The truth is that the Scots have simply adopted a model which was already in place in Wales. Even the language used is the same - concentrating on 'outcomes' and so on. Elvidge lavishes praise on the 'new' Scottish system because he was responsible for implementing it, but he gives no practical examples of how it has improved performance. I would have to say that, in my experience, organisational restructuring rarely delivers the expected benefits. More often than not it has a destabilizing affect and diverts attention and energy away from where it is needed most.

I think you massively underestimate the changes that have taken place in the Welsh civil service since 1999. I would suggest that overall, the organisation's outlook and mindset is radically different to that which existed prior to devolution. Although that doesn't mean that it is necessarily any more effective.

On a final point, and in response to Anon at 11:05 on 30/9, I understand that a Delivery Unit has actually been established. The skeptic in me suggests that it will have no impact whatsoever.

MH said...

OK, I'm interested in what you say, Anon. It certainly appeals to a sense of national pride to think that the Scots were essentially following the example we'd set.

But I have two questions. First, if the Scottish changes the Elvidge Report was praising bring their model closer to what we in Wales have already implemented, it seems odd for you to have called it "Sir Humphreyesque guff". Second, if the Welsh model is so good, how do you address the fact that the feeling among Welsh ministers is that it isn't fit for purpose?

That's not to dismiss your point, for you appear to be well-informed, but just to question it. The workings of the Civil Service are hardly my strong point, so I'd genuinely like to know. If you have strong views about what you think is good/bad and what you'd like to see improved, would you consider writing a guest post? Please email me.

Anonymous said...

MH - In response to your two questions:

1. I think the basic model is the appropriate one but don't consider it to be particularly revolutionary. In the case of Wales, I think we have mostly fallen into it by accident rather constructed it by design. The reference to 'Sir Humphreyesque guff' was perhaps a bit harsh but was my assessment of Elvidge's claims for the impact that his reforms have had in Scotland. I defy anyone to read the the following and a) fully make sense of it and b) truly believe it:

"It places strategic leadership and the facilitation of co-operation between organisations and sections of society at the heart of the role of central government, rather than a managerialist view of the relationship of central government to others"

2. I cannot answer this one as I do not know what it is that Welsh ministers were/are unhappy with in respect of the Welsh civil service. It may well have nothing to do with organisational structures in the way that you seem to think.

Although I have some views on on the Welsh civil service and how it might work more effectively, I don't think I would describe them as strong views - certainly nothing that would make a good guest post (appreciate the offer though). What we really need are politicians with vision and conviction, but sadly, with some honourable exceptions, I think those attributes are currently in short supply across the political spectrum.

Sheila said...

Greetings form Scotland!

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that the politicians haven't had much to do with any of this (long and convoluted story).

Anyway, for good or bad, I expect "Elvige's" system will be heading your way:

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