Change-resistant civil servants pose ‘big society’ risk

By Alex Stevenson

The coalition's public service reform agenda risks being derailed if ministers do not deal with civil servants who oppose change, MPs have warned.

A report from the Commons' public administration select committee says the government's wider ambitions for establishing the 'big society', including its localism and decentralisation drive, could fail without effective reform in Whitehall.

Committee chair Bernard Jenkin said the civil service culture made change extremely difficult.

"Civil service reform is something ministers talk about, but which most civil servants feel does not affect them," he said.

"They keep their heads down until the latest reform has passed over, and then carry on as before. With the challenges of cuts and downsizing on top of the reforms, that is simply not an option this time."

Traditionally the civil service has preferred to institute change gradually, but MPs argue the challenges faced by Whitehall in the next few years need a different approach.

It calls for structural organisational reform driven by proactive ministers and senior civil servants.

The report was broadly supported by the Institute for Government (IfG) thinktank's director of research, Julian McCrae, who gave evidence to the report.

"Those seeking to implement bold and unprecedented changes in policy and governance may overlook the significance of the civil service in delivering their radical agenda. But to do so would be risky," he commented.

"Without considering how Whitehall will service decentralised government and reformed public services the coalition's bold ambitions are unlikely to succeed."

The IfG warned against a centralised change programme, however, arguing that departments needed to press on with reforms by themselves.