Public services at risk of failure without dramatic changes to the Civil Services

In one of his first major pronouncements as Prime Minister, Shri Narendra D. Modi had spoken of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”.

The Prime Minister’s call, welcome as it is, needs to acknowledge that whilst huge amounts of work have been done to improve the Civil Services, two fundamental challenges remain: the radicalism of the government’s reform agenda and the unprecedented spending cuts taking place in the public sector.

Within a smaller and reshaped state, a confident and effective civil service remains essential to the success of government but it must change dramatically in order to succeed. Central Secretariat leaders have an opportunity to make this happen, but they need to act now or endanger policies and public services. Unless reforms are urgently introduced, there will be the risk of a downward spiral of cuts, inadequate services and a demoralized Civil Service.

The opportunity

Today’s letter sets out the Association’s view of what the agenda for change should be, based on its work studying the problems facing government and the Civil Service. The Association presents five elements that it argues are fundamental to successfully reforming Central Secretariat:

  • An emphasis on raising value for money and fixing inadequate financial data, with permanent secretaries taking personal responsibility for cutting out waste.
  • A fundamental shift in the way policies are designed and implemented with permanent secretaries accountable for quality.
  • Finding better ways of managing relationships with other public sector bodies and individuals including local authorities, arms length bodies, city mayors and police commissioners.
  • Raising capability and knowledge, particularly in financial management and policy areas but also in leadership and change management.
  • An acceptance that there must be an open debate about the relationship between ministers and civil servants in order to overcome the potential for misunderstanding and distrust

  • Leadership

    Today’s letter places responsibility for delivering this agenda firmly at the door of the most senior civil servants. Departmental secretaries, in particular, must have more visibility, and greater accountability for delivery. We also set out a challenge for ministers because, it says, previous attempts at reform have only been sustained when there is firm and clear ministerial backing otherwise the forces of inertia and prevarication prevail.


    Although fundamental change is now a necessity not an option, we acknowledge that the stakes are high not just for the Civil Service and the coalition but also for the public. Success will ensure that high quality services can be provided though at a lower cost than before. Failure will mean not only a demoralised civil service but also inadequate services and a dissatisfied public. This letter marks the start of a wider public debate about reform of the Civil Service and improving the effectiveness of government.