by Mark Chillingworth

The next government must radically overhaul Whitehall

Apr 17, 20154 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Whatever shape or colour the post May 7 British government is, one thing is certain, it must use its term in office to modernise the civil service beyond recognition. Failure to do so will impact the economy, slow repayment of the deficit, decrease the UK’s competitiveness and continue to fail citizens and critical public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, armed forces and rescue services.

Technology is just one part of that transformation, as with any organisational modernisation, the most important change necessary is to change the culture of the civil service to be customer centric, not process oriented and to having working practices that are identical to the private sector. As voters, rightly focus on the outcomes and pay in banking, so too should we question the benefits and perks culture of Whitehall.

As the election rumbles on, an investigation into the latest series of disasters by the Rural Payments Agency highlights once again excessive process, with technology thrown on top, being the cause of the problem, not the customer and not solely the technology. Our columnist Jerry Fishenden charts monthly how public sector organisations could become a beacon of efficiency, rather than the opposite, which is all too often the case.

No business or organisation can be sustainable if the number of administrators and their processes exceeds those that produce the product. It is no different for a country. The number of people employed by HMRC and DWP is not sustainable.

My own industry has suffered as a result of years of cuts to the product producers and an inflation of administration, now the industry is struggling as programmatic systems replace the administration layers, but organisations lack sufficient product skills. Sadly the truth is that organisations have to completely change their culture and therefore the skills in that organisation. I don’t say this lightly, I have first-hand experience of redundancy and what it can do to individuals and families, but change creates sustainability at a personal and organisational level.

Whitehall can learn from its cousins in local government. Forced by central government to make drastic cuts, but so much closer to its customer base and therefore the impact, some local authorities have shown how to drive major change on a shrinking income. Again, Whitehall’s sandstone edifices overlooking the Thames are as distant from the communities they serve as the politicians the voters are agnostic towards. Newham in London, Essex, Warwickshire and Staffordshire are authorities that have embraced, as far as they can, new models of operating to increase efficiency.

Next week’s CIO 100 will reveal at least three NHS organisations that are using austerity to adopt new ways of working.

We have seen in the early months of this year an excessive pride by Whitehall, and in particular HMRC and DWP on the size of their organisation and their legacy. Their defence of the legacy delivering an outcome is akin to a tortoise being proud it outlived the dinosaurs it’s related to, but ignoring the fact that mammals have become the dominant species.

The next government must use its mandate to drastically shrink Whitehall, imagine new processes and ways of operating and disperse across this island to get really close to the community it serves. Moving staff out to regions to do things the same old way, as much of the Tory strategy of the 1980s did fails communities too. Agencies with new skills and processes will benefit those regions; here the Welsh have shown the lead with Natural Resources Wales.

So whatever party wins, and in this title’s experience it makes little difference, the opportunity to modernise Whitehall cannot be missed once again.