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Civil Service

This blog post was published under the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Who has the best civil service?

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders
Mark Lowcock, Permanent Secretary DFID
Mark Lowcock, Permanent Secretary DFID

International initiatives can help us to benchmark the civil service across different countries, providing a more objective basis for countries to judge the performance of their civil service. Not just as an end in itself, but to promote lesson learning and improvement.

We are particularly interested in this in the Civil Service Board. Although we are extremely proud of how well the Civil Service is doing, we are constantly trying to improve our performance and the services we offer to the public. We believe that better information, and comparing ourselves with others, are powerful tools, and we don’t use either enough.

So we have asked Liz McKeown, Jon Wallis and Steph Anscomb in the Cabinet Office Analysis and Insight team to join the search for a better measure of Civil Service performance.

What do you measure?

This is not exactly the Holy Grail, but it does have some similar characteristics. One is that some things that look like it turn out not to be. There are already some existing international measures of comparative government effectiveness, like those produced by the World Bank and the German based Bertelsmann Foundation. Unfortunately, they either don't allow access to the underlying data, which makes scrutinising the methodology much harder or don’t include areas which we think are important such as openness, digital and innovation.

You can’t do this with the Holy Grail, but one thing we are keen on is the idea of going back to first principles, planning to develop a new benchmark from scratch –one that potentially responds to a changing world and gives voice to new areas.

What does 'world class' look like?

The first challenge is to agree what the features of a world class civil service – as opposed to the government - are. The precise role and structure of the civil service varies across countries. It is important to recognise that. Otherwise comparisons risk becoming spurious.

That said, there are some basic features every country wants its civil service to have. Like the trust of the wider nation, and capable, committed, honest and hardworking staff. And there are some obvious things the civil service everywhere does. Like providing advice to governing politicians to help them take decisions, and then supporting the implementation of those decisions. So it should be possible to identify a set of widely applicable features that a world class civil service will have.

The second challenge, though, is a two part measurement problem. Are the features of a world class civil service easily amenable to measurement and, if so, is there any data on them? As we know, what gets measured is often what ends up counting.

The other thing you can do if you go back to first principles is to ask lots of people with relevant expertise and a well informed and legitimate interest, what they think the answer is. The fashionable term for this, I gather, is crowd sourcing, but it is not exactly a new concept.

And in that spirit, the purpose of this entry in the blog series is to ask what you think.

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  1. Comment by A M Hill posted on

    A suitable civil service for the UK (World Class is meaningless) would above all be trusted by all,
    I think politicos tend to undermine this for whatever advantage. Further, the higher levels in the CS do not trust the lower levels and you have to say this is eventualy reciprocated, with reason as some of the above responses may indicate. This is corrosive, as much as corruption might be and with the same effect on operations.
    Still, there is hope after all there are areas where this is not true, as yet.

  2. Comment by Billy posted on

    The pace of technological and commercial advances are outstripping the ability of the civil service to keep up at too many levels. Wherever you look and whatever you do, if you don't resolve that, you will not move forward.

  3. Comment by Adam Hussaini Ahmed.. posted on

    What are Unique features of civil service

  4. Comment by Mark Lowcock posted on

    Thank you for these comments – I think this interest shows that people care about what the Civil Service does, and how we should strive to improve it.

    It’s great to see so many ideas about what we should try and measure. I think the range of ideas reflects the incredible breadth of focus the Civil Service has. I particularly like the idea that we should be fearless, and this includes being fearless in saying we should be open to learning from other countries.

    One country on its own is quite limited in the amount of experimentation it can make. If lots of countries are trying new things, we have a better chance of finding things that work and sharing these ideas. Of course any successes may be context specific, but we should try and understand what is likely to work elsewhere.

    As well as looking internationally we need to look at what we can learn from across the UK’s Civil Service. We already try and share best practice in the UK, through the ‘What Works’ centres for practitioners. New initiatives like the Civil Service knowledge benchmarking network are helping Civil Servants learn from best practice in other parts of the service.

    I’m really pleased my post has kicked off this debate, it would be great to hear more views…and in the spirit of learning from our peers it would be great to hear views from those in other countries… I understand that this has already sparked debate in Ottawa.

  5. Comment by Ian posted on

    A good start would be facing up to the damage done to all of public service (not just the civil service) by the attempt to manage service delivery through targets. If leaders haven't understood this yet then any improvement agenda looks doomed from the outset. And If you're at the start of your learning on that subject try John Seddon's book - Systems Thinking in the Public Sector.

    Measures are good - they help you monitor how you're doing, what's wroking, what isn't and where improvements can most profitably be looked for. Turn measures into targets and their ability to corrupt actual delivery is infinite.

  6. Comment by Bart posted on

    I don't know exactly how you would measure this, but I do think this really matters: the level of friction (perhaps the layers?) that exist to get things done. E.g. getting a sub approved. I understand why approval processes are put in place, but I wonder whether the Minister of senior official at the top of a chain realises how long it takes to move through them. Is the best use of our most senior leaders the clearance of subs?

    Could you also measure 'collegiateness'? The less rivalry, grandstanding and politicking that takes place in an organisation, the better - up until you reach 'group-think'. I feel that a lot of time is taken up by leaders in protecting turf and deliberately not joining up, and this cannot be value for the taxpayer.

    Finally, I would echo the points made above about working hours, particularly for SCS whose contracts state that they can work unlimited hours effectively.

  7. Comment by Rossana Roby posted on

    When I read this article I thought wow how exciting it would be to be involved in something global like this. I don't know if we are a better civil service than say France or Italy, or better paid, but is it a bad thing to want to know? If we visit other departments do we not come away with something new we can use ourselves? Why would it be any different from other countries? My second thought was how we could do it? Yes, we could use contacts (that we must have in our trade department and others) to see if perhaps a swap was feasible, staff from here swapping with staff from another country what a wonderful opportunity. If I were not a sixty year old disabled woman I would be one of the first to volunteer!!!!!
    Come on guys, the world is changing, we are changing, there has to be more interaction. What wonderful ideas are out there waiting to be discovered?
    Of course it would need to be open to all grades as in many cases it is those on the ground floor who see the results of the plans of those on the higher levels who make the plans. (Does that make sense?)
    I want to be belong to an organisation that is both open to suggestions, who is willing to share, that is changing for the better, that will boldly go......
    Ciao Rossana

  8. Comment by Pete posted on

    A world class civil service would value its staff, award them annual cost of living pay rises if they perform well, allow them to retire after 40 years with a decent pension, rate their performance fairly and not 'invent' meaningless bottom 10% targets to demotivate them.
    A world class civil service would ensure its people achieved a healthy work-life balance and not expect them to work more than their conditioned hours, unsocial hours and always to be available via technology.
    A world class civil service would be one where the people are happy, motivated and healthy.
    This is not a world class civil service.

  9. Comment by John posted on

    Thank you Kenny for making me smile on another stressful day at the coalface. However, looking at my reduced take home pay this month, following the revised pension deductions, I doubt we are even being paid enough to qualify for a Tandem, let alone the Ford Escort!

  10. Comment by Chris posted on

    Our civil service needs to be as close to perfect at what it is meant to do (not necessarily what it does).

    Being world class is irrelevent.

    Does a UK citizen care where the "performance" of Uk civil Service is relative to Spain, the USA, Denmark, Sierra Leone, or Australia, or as I suspect do they really care about how well spent their tax money is by UK civil service on delivering to them?

    Mark - I'd be interested to know what problem benchmarking UKCS against other different organisations will solve? And how did you come to the conclusion that that is a problem the UKCS has and needs to solve?

  11. Comment by Alex posted on

    In terms of best service, I am minded to think of Bertie Wooster's faithful gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves as a worthy benchmark. He exhibited such stirling qualities as discretion, loyalty and resourcefulness. A deference to superiors certainly but never obsequious, commanding the deepest respect and most profound awe from them all, and always getting his way in the long-run. Able to achieve the most remarkable outcomes in the face of what appeared certain disaster. Always in full possession of the facts, a stategist and tactician with the gift of precision anticipation, Possessing poise, aplomb and impecable manners by the spadeful; never glib, crude or flashy. In speech a man of few words but devestatingly incisive and as dry as a desert; urbane with impecable taste to boot. Have I left anything out? Oh yes, He was fictional. Oh well.

  12. Comment by Charlie S posted on

    Like it or not, as civil servants we serve the country via the elected government of the day so we cannot be differentiated from them if we are fulfilling our role faithfully and properly. Any metric applied to us must therefore surely correlate with performance measures applied to the government of the day, unless, of course, you still believe in the 'Sir Humphrey' model !

  13. Comment by Kenny Chigbo posted on

    Champions League players get Champions League pay. You can't expect Champions League performances on lower league wages. This is like paying for a Ford Escort and expecting a Rolls Royce.

  14. Comment by Joni Karanka posted on

    One of the difficult things is that what functions the civil service carries out depends on the country you look at. For example, in Spain, academics and local government officials are classified as civil servants, while in the UK they would be considered public sector workers. You might want to limit the comparisons to the common functions across countries (central government?).

    Some of the areas to look at I can think of: powers of the civil service (legal and otherwise), corruption (negative measure, but might shed light in cross-country comparisons), independence and political neutrality, capability and turnover of staff, and value / coverage of services provided to the public and government.

  15. Comment by Chris posted on

    Mark, an interesting choice direction.

    First question: What problem would having a credible international benchmark of civil services solve?

    It is normal to assume that visiting or comparing ourselves other organisations might teach us something, I used to think so too.

    Taiichi Ohno, the man who created the Toyota Production System insisted that managers who study other organisations are looking in the wrong place. I agree.

    Everything you need to know to improve performance is in your own system, he said, but you need to learn how to look.

    I suggest that benchmarking (a way of looking to help improve) is the fastest route to mediocrity. No other civil service is exactly the same as ours, so wont have the exact same challenges and drivers and customers and etc etc..

    Rather than pursue this line of measurement, why not take this path and look hard at ourselves - that is where the answers lie: Have a clear purpose. Measure exactly how well we perform, how much waste is in our way of doing things, how much time do we waste doing work that does not help us to deliver our purpose or help us get better at doing it.

    You stated "The precise role and structure of the civil service varies across countries. It is important to recognize that. Otherwise comparisons risk becoming spurious."

    How will comparing against an any organisation that is so different help us to get better? Toyota and Ohno did not go to Ford of GM learn to what they did - they looked at themselves with better eyes and benchmarked themselves against 'perfection'.

    How close to perfection can we get? That is is challenge, and what method do you propose we use to get there?

    Here is a starter for 10 for Liz McKeown, Jon Wallis and Steph Anscomb:

    Start with the book "The Whitehall Effect" by John Seddon - available through amazon

  16. Comment by Jon K posted on

    As well as the examples mentioned in your article, most of which are subjective and unmeasurable I'd say the general public in the developed world would put cost effectivness at the top of their requirements. No one likes paying tax and for people to see government wasting its resources is particularly gauling. Its not easy to set international parameters for all parts of the civil service, as the populace of a country as well as it's laws will also impact on how cost effective it can be. For certain parts though e.g. its tax department you could look at comparing the tax gap as a percentage of the total potential tax collected then compare this with the number of staff employed in that part of the civil service. I don't think comparing the total cost of the department would be fair as wages, estate etc. fluctuate so markedly across the world, however using staff numbers isn't perfect either as the quality of IT will impact on how well staff can operate. This demonstrates the problem, there is no perfect solution and dependent on what parameters you set will have a huge impact on your position in a worldwide league table.

  17. Comment by Peter Black posted on

    A world class civil service is one which focuses on customer needs and balances those needs within budgets. It also values it's staff and encourages development, has a committment to being fair to all levels of staff and shows this by offering opportunities in an open way to all staff.
    Identification of abuse of the system by customers and staff alike should be paramount in a world class civil service, and this needs a high level of dedicated fraud and error agents who should also be looking into laziness and apathy of staff members. It is very easy to do things right first time, and this aspect should be looked at more closely,monitoring time taken on customer claims is very important, having a quick turnaround in a customers claim is important but the claim has to be complete and correct as far as can possibly be done in the first contact.
    Our civil service is very good at the above points but should strive to be excellent.

  18. Comment by Andrew Nixon posted on

    An ideal civil service needs to be:
    Efficient - both in keeping costs down and delivering what is required effectively and quickly
    Trusted - by both goverment and the public to be fair and even-handed and to keep information protected (where that is appropriate).
    Honest - in both meanings: i.e it must be above corruption and truthful in the statements it makes
    Open - with both the public and government in recognising what is and isn't possible, in acknowledging mistakes when made, in making information available unless there is a very good reason not to. It must also be open to scritiny by audit, by government the media and the public, each to an appropriate degree.
    Impartial - even handed in the application of the law/governmnet policy of the day and equally capable of serving the present and any future government.
    Fearless - in applying the above principals, even if it means telling the goverment of the day that what it wants is impossible, illegal or very unwise.
    Discrete - it should not make its dealings with either the government or the public known more widely where privacy should be respected.
    There is inevitable conflict between these principles and much of the quality of any civil service will be shown in how it resolves those conflicts. How you measure the quality of those resolutions is another issue.

  19. Comment by Andy Deluce posted on

    It was interesting to see that you are asking for comments on what a world class civil service looks like, for how would I know?
    It is hard to envisage the view on it from your end, higher up the scale, but I am sure it must be better than mine, at ground zero.
    I know that there are many great ideas, thoughts and suggestions on how it can be made better, and I applaude you all for trying, but somehow it just never quite succeeds for me. Maybe it is overkill.
    I enjoy the work that I do, and I give it my all in an effort to give my customers a fair and unbiassed result. But somehow the office never has the all round buzz of contentment that those in charge desire so much, and you have to ask yourself, why?
    I only have opinions, no answers, and not much spare time in my day to think of any, but thanks for asking.

  20. Comment by Buster Friendly posted on

    You could start by not imposing performance management on your staff, causing widespread demotivation and breaking up teamworking. Also, treat us fairly, stand up for us ( you know, leading? ) and keep your sticky fingers off our pension contributions.