‘When the Cabinet Office tries to reform departments, there is quite a bit of eye rolling’, report finds

Study from think tank Reform finds that, although must former leaders believe transformation needs to be driven from the centre of government, many are resistant to efforts to do so

A study has found that, while former senior officials and minister recognise the important role of the Cabinet Office in driving transformation across government, most typically meet attempts to do so with “eye-rolling” and obstinance.

Think tank reform has published a report – titled Breaking Down Barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform – based on interviews with 27 former cabinet secretaries, permanent secretariess, Cabinet ministers and special advisers.

All interviewees agreed that sustainable, cross-Whitehall reform must be instigated and driven from the centre. But the report said one of the most common phrases uttered by interviewees when asked how civil service leaders responded to reform efforts instigated by the centre of government, was “eye rolling”.

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Permanent secretaries are not interested enough in reform – and do not tend to see it as their job to drive it, the think tank found.

One ex-departmental leader said: “When the Cabinet Office tries to reform departments, there is quite a bit of eye rolling about the latest initiative to come out of the centre.”

Another added: “The Treasury has an instinctive reflex on anything that comes out of the Cabinet Office, which is just sort of an eye roll…it is unlikely to actively and outwardly oppose civil service reform measures, but it might be as equally unlikely to swing in behind them and give it the priority it needs.”

“It’s extraordinary how non-compliant permanent secretaries and DGs are,” another former perm sec said. “The centre is something you doff your cap [to] when in view, but as soon as they’re out of view, you just manage it”.

One even admitted to displaying this attitude whilst in government, saying: “As a senior official, I tended to switch off [when people spoke about the latest reform effort]”.

And an ex-senior adviser recalled being sent a document about a reform agenda and a perm sec ordering them to “just bin it immediately”. “Their view was that it was just the centre pissing around”, they said.

Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, who wrote a preface to the report, told the think tank how hard it is to drive reform from the centre, explaining he sometimes felt he had less power as cabinet secretary than as perm sec at the Home Office. “At the Home Office, I’d sometimes find I’d pulled levers and commissioned work, even if I didn’t know I had, just by casual remarks,” he said. “[As] cabinet secretary, I could barely find a lever that was connected to anything.”

In the past decade, a key strand of the transformation initiatives led by the Cabinet Office has been the work of the Government Digital Service and, latterly, the Central Digital and Data Office. This has included the creation of centrally administered standards and controls on departments’ procurement of tech and creation of online services.

An in-depth round-up of the report’s findings can be found on PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World

Sam Trendall

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