Civil service lessons

Various prompts have got me remembering my conclusions after five months on secondment to the civil service in 2009.

@Puffles2010 at is one of the sparks to make me trawl my archive for the memories.

The experience of trying to run the Community Organisers programme in a febrile environment is another.

So… Looking back on my reflections as the secondment came to an end, it felt to me that:

  • the politicians had enormous power and a strong sense of agency (“I can do this”) but were lacking in reliable information
  • civil servants had the power to make things happen (in theory) or stop things happening (in practice) and a highly-privileged access to information but almost no sense of agency
  • civil society (then known as the third sector) had a strong sense of agency (“we must do this because no one else will do it properly”) and an amazing level of intelligence/info but bugger all power.

Other conclusions from my write-up on 15/06/09 included:

  1. Some impressions
    1. How the operating model impacts…
      1. Deadlines [by close of play today, a regurgitation of 5-lines on your policy area, that could instead be stored on an intranet and accessed across Govt, inc MP’s assistants etc]
      2. Email loops [ever-widening, back-covering, wasteful and angst-making: “I can’t make it till 4.15pm on Thursday” copied to 22 people]
      3. Bad meeting habits [changing meeting times, not opening with proper intros, lack of papers, poor chairing, lack of common courtesies found in most other fields]
      4. Primitive approach to mobile working [incredible lack of competence and almost zero willpower to keep up to date with changing technology]
    2. How the cultural model impacts…
      1. Structural/cultural lack of trust of outsiders
      2. Coping strategies and avoidance tactics – including cynicism, cover your back
      3. Jargon (internalised) and spin (self-justifying)
    3. …to create problems
      1. Decreasing spirals of knowledge
      2. Lack of boundaries to responsibilities
      3. Time and effort wasted throughout ‘the system’
      4. Unshared policy aims
      5. Reluctance to challenge
  2. Structural, operational, managerial issues
    1. Structural – eg civil service prides on doing the bidding of ministers but ministers change (and don’t always know what’s good for them, or the supposed beneficiaries)
    2. Operational – email loops, deadlines, info managemen etc
    3. Managerial – lack of individual responsibility/autonomy
    4. Cultural – coping strategies that cause their own problems
    5. Press/comms– v bad indeed; churn, lack of interest, too many of them; complete lack of rebuttal [“what do you think this is? 1997?”]
  3. What can be done? The focus needs to be on:
    1. Operations
    2. Attitudes
    3. Connections

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1 Response to Civil service lessons

  1. Here’s a quote from an interview I did a couple of weeks back with a head teacher, talking about a ‘failing’ school that has been through four heads in three years:

    ‘The school got lots of outside help and that clouded any vision they had and they now have staff who don’t think for themselves, they have staff who wait for somebody to tell them what to do, they have learnt helplessness and therefore it doesn’t attract people in…’

    People find all sorts of reasons to avoid taking action and responsibility, often with the very best of intentions. Isn’t that why we should be looking for people solutions, not just policy solutions?

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