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Reforming the Public Service – Insights from the British Experience

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About this Event

09 Sep 2011 @ 12:45

About the Speaker:

Ian Watmore began his career in Andersen Consulting (later Accenture) in 1980 and has since worked on many of their largest business transformation client engagements globally. Between 2000 and 2004 he was the managing director of Accenture's UK practice. In 2004 he joined the Civil Service. 

His first role was as  Government Chief Information Officer and Director General of the Cabinet Office, before moving in 2006 to lead the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit at No 10. From 2007, Mr Watmore helped design and build a new government department as Permanent Secretary for the newly created Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. His most recent position was as Group Chief Executive of the Football Association group, from which he resigned in March 2010 to take up his current role.

As the Irish Government's newly-established Department of Public Expenditure & Reform embarks on its own ambitious modernisation programme and efficiency drive, this was an excellent opportunity to hear from a leading international practitioner of large-scale organisational transformation.

About the Event:

In a wide-ranging presentation to a packed house at the IIEA, Ian Watmore described his role at the centre of the UK government's efforts at reforming the public sector. He described the operational set-up of the Efficiency and Reform Group, his experience of working directly to Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

He emphasised the importance of coordination across government departments, of political leadership, and of a passion for detail.

He spoke of how he has urged people around Europe not to enter into a climate of 'bashing' the public service, noting that this only serves to damage the climate in which you are trying to introduce change. If there are problematic systems, it is rarely the fault of the public servants themselves.

The mission facing those who are trying to make the public service better boils down to three things: efficiency, sustainable reform and credibility.

This last is crucial if you are trying to drive sustainable reforms across the incredibly complex systems of government. If your own 'back yard' is not tidy then forget about trying to lecture to others. Team building is critically important in this regard. The Efficiency and Reform Group tries to operate as a model of flexibly-resourced coordination.

There is a sometimes 'theological' debate on the meaning of efficiency in government, but for Francis Maude it is quite simple: it means spending less money each year. The public spending review in October 2010 took the previous government's plans, which foresaw spending rising from £700bn a year to £780bn over four years, and decided to flatline it to £700bn. So, not cutting spending but not growing it either.

On areas for reform, it is a simple fact that the welfare budget must be tackled in order to generate these savings. In the UK, the move towards a 'universal credit' system of welfare provision is of critical importance. But much of the rest of the savings must come from operating efficiencies. The UK government hopes to save £20bn from central government, £20bn from the broader public sector, and £10bn from tackling fraud, error, debts, etc.

The coalition focused on central government in its first ten months and has achieved an audited figure of £4bn saved so far. Mostly these savings have come from changes that are "largely invisible". The government hopes to increase those savings to £20bn by the end of the four year period.

Moves to reform the wider public sector have already become quite controversial. The majority of government spending goes on pay and procurement so these clearly need to be addressed but it is always politically punishing to try to reduce, for example, police numbers and pensions.

So there are "totemic" issues that need to be tackled if public support for broader moves is to be gained. Of these, the government has chosen to first address consultancy and marketing budgets. These have been savaged. Consultancy speding is down 70%. while marketing is down 80%. But if these moves weren't made, other efforts wouldn't be taken seriously.

To change the payroll bill of Whitehall, you have to reduce numbers. But despite large redundancies to date, the most controversial issue has been pension reform. The trade unions have made a lot of capital on this issue and the government is expecting big days of industrial action in November, probably coordinated across the public sector. 

On procurement, if the government is buying commodities, then the purchases should be consolidated in the centre. Ten key commodities are now being bought centrally. The government has also instituted a new approach to dealing with suppliers. There is, for example, a single person facing BT on behalf of the whole government. Commercial directors of single departments have also been empowered to purchase on behalf of the government as a whole. The top 20 suppliers were all called in and were asked for 10% off everything. The government (eventually) got it.

Other reforms include the establishment of new style boards to supervise Whitehall departments. These boards are in regular contact to identify trends and problems that departments have in common.

The UK civil service is already very professional. That experience is vital and not to be underestimated. Parachuting people in from the private sector is a simplistic answer and rarely works. What can work is bringing people in 'sideways' and then letting them move up.

Co-location is an interesting issue. If departments are sharing buildings, barriers begin to be broken down.

New IT tools are often needed. Differences in technologies and security overload can be incredibly frustrating for workers.

It is worth considering whether policy advice should be more contestable. It might be useful to force government to consider a wider range of policy advice from think tanks, etc.

The government is considering hybrid models for delivering services including the 'mutuals' model. The idea here is to take a piece of the public sector and put it into three-way ownership – part owned by government, part owned by investor, part owned by staff. This is being trialled in the area of civil service pension administration. The government is trying to create an entity there that would be treated as any other supplier.

Mr Watmore's team does not take a lead in the area of reforming the 'frontline of the public service, but it is trying to enable changes there service. Examples include digital delivery.

In conclusion, Mr Watmore reiterated his three key messages of efficiency, sustainable reform and credibility and suggested replacing the worn cliche of 'more for less' with the positive credo of 'better for less'.

The IIEA wishes to acknowledge the support it has received from the European Commission throughout 2011.

Theme: Foreign Policy and ESDP 

Views: 4441

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