Headlines: July 29th, 2015

Cultural change and innovation across the public sector are essential pre-requisites if the Chancellor is to meet his target of a balanced budget by 2019-20. This is the conclusion of Tough love for a better future: The 2015 Spending Review, published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

The publication argues that cultural change requires commitment from the very top. It is all too easy for senior civil servants to “put their head down” and carry on as normal until the drive for reform blows over. The only way to avoid this tendency is to make clear the drive comes from the very top. Those not committed to reform should be encouraged to leave.

The current culture favours those who avoid failure, but this needs to change to that where the career of project leaders depend on success and they should be accountable and given the responsibility with decision making powers to match. In essence, managers should be empowered with a genuine ability to manage, free to use their common sense, innovate and take risks. Good performers should be rewarded well and poor performers exposed to the kind of sanctions that are the norm in the private sector.

Politicians need to be involved in the process of change. They should be persuaded to announce their plans and targets and then be held to account. Ideally, the Cabinet should retain a serious and on-going interest in public sector effectiveness so that Permanent Secretaries believe that they are continuously being scrutinised. A collaborative relationship between politicians and civil servants is key for effective government; it is a prerequisite for establishing a culture of change.

Communications play an important part in the process. It should be made clear to staff where they fit into the new vision and they should be aware of the reasoning behind the reforms. This should help avoid resistance and encourage staff to buy in to the reform agenda. Communication does, however, work both ways and it is vital to listen to staff, and show that they are appreciated. Natural wastage and voluntary redundancy should be used to reduce fear of job-cuts and resistance to idea of reform.

As with all big reform drives, there will be setbacks; the important thing is to keep moving with the reform until it is complete. It is all too easy to give in at the first sign of difficulty, but half-completed reform is usually worse than the status quo.