Last week the Institute for Government think tank published a new report bemoaning the quality of public information on how the civil service performs and called on the Government to improve how Whitehall collects data. This report comes at a key moment following the announcement last month by the Public Administration Select Committee that it was launching a new inquiry into the Government’s public service reforms. The inquiry provides an opportunity to scrutinise the progress made in delivering the Government’s objectives to improve the efficiency of central government and reform public service provision.
In some quarters the Government’s record on reforming the public sector has been heralded as one of its greatest successes. It has been claimed that the Government has destroyed the myth that significant reform could only be achieved by increasing spending and should not be tackled with the Government’s finances in such a perilous state. Encouraged by this support, Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, has used the summer to champion the public sector reforms boasting that the Government is on the way to managing its finances as well as the best-run FTSE 100 companies. Led by the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group, Whitehall has found savings of £10 billion, surpassing the £8 billion target set after the 2010 general election. It follows savings of £5.5 billion in 2011/12 and £3.75 billion in 2010/11. Francis Maude has even indicated that he wants to take these reforms further with an ambition to slash the “eight layers” of management that existed in many government departments which he hoped would lead to empowering frontline staff to make more decisions without referring up the hierarchy.
These reforms have come at a cost with a backdrop of deep cuts and job losses across Whitehall. The Government’s plans have been fiercely resisted by civil service unions and there have been wider fears of a public backlash. An earlier report by the Institute for Government concluded that market reforms in the public sector had gone too far and accused the Government of failing to ensure there is genuine competition for contracts. There has also been criticism that the Government is not going far enough and needs to do more to encourage innovation on a local level.
There is no doubt that the Government has been ambitious and the savings achieved are impressive. Yet one of the key questions is whether the savings are sustainable? It is far from certain that a long-term culture change in Whitehall has been enshrined in civil servants and a serious question is how many of the reforms will outlast the next general election? It has been argued that many Government Departments still lack a clear strategic vision of what they are to do, what they are not, and the most cost-effective way of delivering it. This debate is sure to hot up over the coming weeks and will be one key issue for MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee when they return in September.