In the mid-term ministers’ fancy lightly turns to thoughts of civil service reform. The current government is no different. In recent months, various figures in the Coalition have expressed growing frustration about the performance of the civil service. And so it comes as no surprise that Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced at the beginning of August that he would commission a review of government structures in other countries and multilateral organisations. This review would include examining various governments’ operation and accountability, identifying best practices and making recommendations for how these could be adopted in the UK. It’s a competitive bid, all for the princely sum of £50,000.
You can read the Cabinet Office’s proposal here. It’s certainly ambitious. The Constitution Unit was mentioned as one of the possible contenders for the bid, which was very flattering, but unrealistic, for reasons we set out below. And it has recently emerged that a number of other think tanks have also politely declined to submit a bid.
It’s worth thinking about the practical aspects of the proposed review. The terms of reference are very, very broad. The successful external consultant is expected to look in detail at six different countries’ bureaucratic systems at a minimum; and to look not just at the relationships between ministers and the bureaucracy, and how policy advice is provided, but successes and failures, public and parliamentary accountability mechanisms … the list goes on. Some of these six countries—New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, France, the United States, Sweden—actually have very different systems with very different experiences. The review also insists on examining the European Union (why?).
The vast scope of the proposed review means that the external organisation would need a substantial number of staff already in place, or else a very, very quick recruitment process. That would exclude a good number of organisations (like the Unit, for instance). And the comparative nature of the review also means this large project team would probably need to be already familiar with the countries in question. So not just a large team, but a large expert team. Experts or consultants cost money. That sum of £50000 begins to look less and less realistic.
Moreover, the final report is meant to be ready within two months. That is a very short time indeed. As a point of comparison, the IfG—one of the biggest, most well-staffed think tanks in the UK—is taking one year to examine many of the issues raised by the Cabinet Office proposal.
The final kicker is that the external consultant is expected to meet regularly with the Minister so that he can discuss progress and ‘provide direction’ for the project. This, coupled with the implied requirement of familiarity with comparative public administration across six countries, the short time within which they are expected to deliver, and the low sum of money being offered, raises real issues of neutrality and impartiality. The terms of reference suggest that Maude already knows what he wants, but that he needs an ‘external’ consultant to somehow legitimate it.
A final point. Francis Maude is asking for too much, too quickly. If these are the kinds of goals he thinks are realistic, is it any surprise that he and his colleagues are disappointed by the performance of the civil service?
EDIT 28 September 2012: since this blog post, Maude has announced that the Institute for Public Policy Research has won the £50,000 contract.