Abstracts: December 5th, 2012

The Institute of Government has proposed radical new ways of working to bolster fragile Whitehall departments threatened by further civil service salami slicing as more cuts to departmental budgets are announced by the Chancellor.

The thinktank’s report, Transforming Whitehall: leading major change in Whitehall, says departments are fragile, morale is at risk and leaders will need to work very differently with more cuts to come.

The report says civil service leaders are struggling to find the capacity and capability required to lead departmental reorganisation on top of ministerial and other priorities. It says “back office” functions, such as HR, finance, internal communications and IT, need to play a strategic role in Whitehall planning and calls for greater leadership responsibility at lower levels of the civil service.

The civil service has lost 54,000 staff since the 2010 spending review. Despite many departments acting rapidly to make savings, some are not confident that they could meet further cuts that are now demanded. However, departments need to find effective ways of planning for the difficult choices and trade-offs they will face, beyond just immediate priorities, said James Page, the Institute’s programme director and lead author.

“It is essential that leaders throughout Whitehall work together more effectively across departmental boundaries to find the best options for savings and new ways of working,” he said. “With the danger of declining staff engagement, the onus is on leaders to ensure the motivation and capability is there to see them through.”

Giving those below ministerial, permanent secretary and director general level more responsibility to counterbalance turnover at the top part-way through a large scale change programme and giving corporate functions a more strategic role, are two of the seven “radical” recommendations made by an expert advisory panel drawn from eight departments.

The Institute identifies three major risks to successful change in Whitehall: fragile leadership, siloed departments still working in isolation and falling staff engagement. Breaking the “deeply ingrained cycle of siloed working” will require committed leadership from the head of the civil service, the cabinet secretary said the report.

Transforming Whitehall can be downloaded here.