Whitehall leaders need to better support staff innovation, NAO report finds

Assessment picks out a series of barriers to improving government’s operational performance

Leaders of government organisations are failing to create the right environment for effective process management and needs to better support its staff in innovating, at a time when complex challenges like Covid-19 and climate change require new skills, the National Audit Office has warned.

The public-spending watchdog said 40 assessments of operational management capability across different organisations over the past decade had showed evidence of individual bodies improving, “but limited collective progress across government”.

Its new good practice guide on improving operational delivery in Whitehall says “government needs people who can lead, manage and work in complex systems, and good workforce planning to ensure that the right technical skills are in the right place”. But it concedes that the evidence of its assessments “shows that much of government continues to lack these capabilities”. 

A key area for improvement is supporting innovation and problem-solving among staff. The NAO pointed to the 2019 Civil Service People Survey finding that only 50% of staff believed it was “safe to challenge the way things are done” in their organisation to highlight the issue.

It said staff needed to be given the “skills, methods and time to spot, raise and fix problems”. But it added: “We found no evidence of this happening in nearly three-quarters of the organisations we assessed.”

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The guide said some of the most successful organisations credited that success to a working environment that encouraged openness, innovation, and challenge of current thinking.

“Leaders should ask what barriers and problems people need help with to improve how they work,” the guide said. “If improving is a priority, then show it by making clear that spending time on improving the organisation is as valuable as providing services.”

The NAO said its value-for-money reports had thrown up “repeated issues” that reflected the operational impact of a lack of technical and leadership capability.

“This causes repeated problems with service quality and inefficiency, and contributes to large-scale crises, such as the Windrush situation,” it said.

But the watchdog said the centre of government recognised the importance of building leadership capabilities.

“The Civil Service Leadership Academy and National Leadership Centre focus on gaps in leadership capability,” it said.

“The New Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills brings together those existing offers with plans for a Service Delivery Academy for operational delivery.”

On the quality of services, the NAO said focusing service-design on the most common or “easiest” types of demand could result in services that were incapable of meeting the needs of less common or harder cases. It added that using performance measures that were based on averages could hide problems that affected particular groups. A further pitfall was “making assumptions” about what is important for service users.

Other “warning signs” included failing to understand the needs of different parts of the system in cross-government work; measuring quality and output only at the end of the process rather than identifying where any errors have occurred in the system; and focusing on organisational benefits rather than the end-user’s experience in any service-change process.

Under pressure 
The guide said also improving management capability will be vital for dealing with the current “unique combination of financial and operational pressures”, including Brexit, Covid-19,  climate change, precarious local government finances, and civil service reform.

It added that Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove’s civil service reform drive would require “a focus on civil service capability, the tools and data to support it, and removing barriers to cross government working and innovation”.

One area for improvement is for leaders to ensure they create an environment that encourages departments and professions to take a whole-system approach to priority issues by that aligning objectives, funding governance and accountability. 

“In around two-thirds of organisations we assessed, we found no clarity on how accountability aligns across end-to-end delivery,” the guide said. 

It added that achieving a whole-system approach would require senior leaders to focus on closing the gap between policy intent and “service reality”. The guide said: “In over 50% of our assessments, we found a lack of clear links between the strategic objective of the organisation and how services were running.”

The NAO guide also sets out warning signs that an organisation or individual leader is failing to apply productive approaches to improving operational delivery.

They include “misaligned incentives” that conflict with wider system aims; over-reliance on hard accountability measures, such as service-level agreements, that can make it harder to remove perverse incentives that were not apparent at the outset; and service measures focused on the wrong outcomes.

Other whole-system warning signs include policy and operational teams working in isolation; assuming systems can absorb changes in priorities or new policies on top of existing commitments without affecting current services; and an over-reliance on formal team-based accountability and reporting lines.

Elsewhere, the NAO said senior leaders who claimed to value improvement and innovation but failed to give staff the necessary tools, techniques or time to do either properly risked disconnecting improvement and innovation from officials’ daily work. Leaders were also warned not to underestimate the impact of what they say and do, particularly if their behaviour exposes a lack of good technical understanding of how to manage services well.


Sam Trendall

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