Features: August 5th, 2005

Reforming the Public Services

By Ed Straw

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

In September 2004, the think-tank Demos published my paper, The Dead Generalist—Reform of the Civil Service and Public Services. The reactions to it have been many and various—none more so than to the professionalization and specialization of staff which has touched some raw nerves and raised several questions.

The raw nerves first. No generalist wants to be dead, nor out of a job nor, more immediately, face up to the inevitability of a major re-skilling equivalent to embarking on a whole new career in mid-life. I empathise entirely having faced this daunting task myself hoping for the comfortable and, often, exciting past and wishing the market and the world had not changed thus. I have seen persisting generalists and the wrong kind of specialists later washed up on forgotten career shores, with mean or excessive compensation.

Then there are those who have seen the changes, know that the world owes them not a living nor a fat-cat pension, have taken a deep breath and become excited by a second career. And that’s the choice. Nearly every other walk of organizational walk of life has gone through it in the past 30 years, sometimes more than once as an ever-increasingly competitive and complex world has demanded organizations and staff of ever greater skill and competence. Now it is the inevitable turn of the civil service.


Not without some reluctance. The announcements from the Cabinet Office at the launch of its ‘Professional Skills for Government’ programme in October 2004 came with a mixture of relief by the reformers and astonishment. As if a great discovery had been made and reported with great pride, if not irritating self-certainty, the civil service found that operational delivery requires specialist skills.

World-class management knew this in the 1950s, British company management was on its way in the 1970s, and local authorities and the National Health Service in the 1980s. Is being only 20 to 50 years late an achievement, or time for new `management? And some humility. The questions have been around:

But we are professional already, so why do we need to professionalize?

But I work across organisational boundaries integrating services, shouldn’t I stay a generalist?

Aren’t dumb specialists as organisationally toxic as dead generalists?

To respond, first with some definitions. Being a professional unit is determined by the quality and cost of its outputs and not by the education, intellect and writing skills of its staff. The civil service is highly professional in its political, Parliamentary and legislative management and has long used economists, statisticians, highways engineers and various scientist. However, it is largely unprofessional elsewhere by this dictionary definition:

A profession is a ‘vocation or calling especially one requiring advanced knowledge or training in some branch of learning or science’.


Professionalism is ‘the body of qualities or features as competence, skill etc., characteristic of a profession or professional’.

For the existing professions, professionalization means adopting their established practices. For a finance unit, this means a majority of staff be members of an accounting institute’ training, qualification and continuing professional education to their standards; recruiting from the wider finance gene pool and not seeking to grow your own; applying best practice in finance functions from wherever it has originated; and through quality experience which provides the judgement no rule book can provide. And getting all of this in place within two years, not the 15 years allowed in 1993 for the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting.

The number of professions has multiplied. Human resources (HR) used to be the preserve of people turning their hand and natural abilities to it. Now, there are professional response to the many HR matters which impact all organizations. A body of non-static knowledge has been assembled to assist in these responses, alongside the experience acquired in top-class HR functions. There is no substitute in the modern world.

As a task become more complex and critical, so it follows this emerging profession path: project management, supply chain management, and facilitation are examples. The questioner, above in integrating services is a specialist and not a generalist, and much needed in front-line public services who can and should be operating to the highest professional standards.

Delivering change

My sense is that the argument has been won on the need for a professionalized and specialized civil service. The big battle is now to realize it quickly. For 150 years the civil service has had in its organizational roots a deep belief that the able people it recruits could undertake any function or task to a high standard. It is still dominated by home-grown career lifetime civil servants. A recent head of the home civil service threatened a public resignation to prevent an ‘outsider’ becoming his successor. Worrying refuge in language is currently being taken as in ‘the unhelpful distinction between generalist and specialist’. When the senior civil service says ‘unhelpful’ you are being warned off. In professional skills for Government, the ‘Policy expert/analyst’ category is a conglomeration of skills, professions and roles unconnected to the needs of citizens and consumers, public services and government. And the biggest obstacle in opening up the civil service remains the hugely attractive pension which keeps people over the age of 40 there for life, when they and the service would be far better served by a change.