The Civil Service plays a crucial role in modern British life, supporting the well-being, security and prosperity of the country.  The UK’s budget deficit means that departments are implementing significant reductions in public spending and resources.  At the same time they are supporting the Government’s radical programme of economic and public service reform.  All departments are already implementing substantial change programmes; but the scale of the challenges and persistent weaknesses require a reform plan that applies right across the Civil Service.  This Plan sets out a series of specific and practical actions for reform, which, when implemented, will lead to a real change for the Civil Service.  It is a working document and the first stage of a continuing programme of reform.

The strengths

We are confident the Civil Service will be able to respond to the challenges. It has demonstrated its ability to adapt and reform in the past, and the Context for Civil Service Reform document sets out the evidence for this.2  The Civil Service employs some of the most talented people in the country, committed to public service, often operating in difficult and complex circumstances. It has become more open and diverse, with a doubling of the proportion of women in senior roles in the last 15 years3, some of whom run the largest departments in the Civil Service.  The appointment of experienced non-executives from a variety of sectors and industries on departmental boards has increased the range of skills and experience that civil servants can draw on. The Civil Service will continue to ensure a diverse workforce at all levels through a focus on equality, diversity and social mobility.

The values of the Civil Service – impartiality, objectivity, integrity and honesty – have always been regarded as a model for others to follow to create effective, trustworthy institutions.  At its best the Civil Service is flexible and agile, responding quickly and effectively to new priorities and changing demands.  This is especially true in times of crisis – such as terrorist incidents, the banking crisis, natural disasters and health epidemics. It has been proven in the way in which the Civil Service embraced the challenges of coalition Government and its new policy agenda, based on transparency, behaviour impacts, and payment by results, instead of top down targets, regulation and increasing public spending.

The need for change

The sustained economic downturn since 2008 has had a significant impact on the size of the economy.  The Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that by 2016, the economy will be 11% smaller than it would have been if it had continued to grow at the same rate as before the crisis4. Despite significant fiscal consolidation achievements, the budget deficit still stands at around £94.8bn, or 6.4% of GDP5.   Alongside this, rising consumer expectations and huge demographic change due to an aging and growing population are placing significant additional demands on public spending.

To address these challenges the Government is reforming public services – such as health, education and welfare – with radicalism and urgency.   These and other reforms, including devolution, are pushing power away from Whitehall and putting service users and communities in charge.  This in turn means that the Civil Service will need to do less centrally and commission more from outside.

The public increasingly expects to be able to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them, and the Civil Service needs to meet these expectations rather than expecting citizens to meet the Civil Service’s processes.  It needs to become Digital by Default, in its skills, its style, how it communicates and how it enables service users to interact with it.

Lastly, alongside the Civil Service’s considerable strengths, there are significant weaknesses that have not been fully addressed. For example, there are some superb project managers in the Civil Service, but not nearly enough and too many projects fail. Leadership of change needs to be much stronger and more consistent; performance management is too rarely rigorous; and the culture is too often slow and resistant to change.

The Reform Plan

This Reform Plan identifies specific changes needed across the Civil Service.  It is a working action plan that sets out key actions. These are not exhaustive, and will be regularly updated and reviewed on a continuing basis.  Chapters 1, 4 and 5 are relevant to the majority of civil servants, whilst chapters 2 and 3 focus specifically on policy and its implementation.  The plan is based heavily on feedback from many civil servants, drawing on what frustrates and motivates them, as well as wide external consultation.

The UK Civil Service serves three Governments, the national Government in Westminster and the Governments of Scotland and Wales, and it must ensure it meets the needs of each. Elements of this Plan will apply to all civil servants, whilst the Governments in Scotland and Wales have, or will have, complementary plans, setting out how they are equipping their workforces to meet the challenges we are collectively facing.  The Northern Ireland Civil Service has been a separate organisation since 1921.

Role of the Civil Service

The current model of a permanent, politically impartial Civil Service will remain unchanged. It exists to serve the Government of the day, while retaining the flexibility to serve future Governments. Civil servants carry out three broad types of role, at home and overseas. All need to change in order to meet the new challenges and address weaknesses:

  • Operational delivery – seven out of ten civil servants work in operational delivery6, ranging from working at borders, administering pensions and benefit systems, and running prisons and courts. Departments, agencies and a wide range of public sector bodies deliver these services in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the task. Much of the public’s perception of the Civil Service is formed by how well these services are delivered.  The substantial savings that need to be made in operational delivery mean that productivity needs to be improved.  There has already been some good progress7 but departmental change programmes need to drive further improvements – all operational delivery needs to be brought up to the standard of the best. For the most part, these changes will be delivered through the five main delivery departments (Ministry of Justice, Department for Work and Pensions, Home Office, HM Revenue & Customs and Ministry of Defence) by innovating service delivery; using technology to achieve efficiencies; working in partnerships across departments; and looking at whole-system continuous improvement approaches. Departments will commission services from others where this achieves a better service to the public or better value to the taxpayer. Productivity in operational delivery needs to match the best of the private sector. There are great examples that show that it can be done.  But the old binary choice between monolithic in-house provision and full scale privatisation has been replaced by a number of new ways of delivering services – joint ventures, employee-owned mutuals and entering into new partnerships with the private sector. Many public services can be delivered online, and they should be.  Digital by Default needs to become a reality, not just a buzz phrase. Chapter 1 includes reform plans for operational delivery.
  • Advising on policy and supporting Ministers – although many continue to see the classic “Sir Humphrey” role as what the Civil Service is about, in fact only a small fraction of civil servants actually work in policy roles and support Ministers, including in their Parliamentary roles, in creating policy solutions and communicating policy decisions.  Though much policy advice is excellent, the quality of policy making is inconsistent and needs to be improved – too often policy advice draws from too narrow a range of views and evidence, and does not ensure that policy is capable of practical implementation8.  In Chapter 2 we consider how policy making can be improved.
  • Implementing programmes and projects – the Government’s portfolio of projects ranges from complex, system-changing projects (Universal Credit) to infrastructure projects (Crossrail) to smaller programmes (National Citizen Service). Around a third of major projects have been delivered on time and to budget9.  This has led to taxpayers’ money being thrown away, service and infrastructure improvements being delayed or denied, and the Government’s commitments not being met. We should strive for all projects to be delivered effectively. A key driver of this will be greater accountability in the future.  Chapter 3 addresses these issues.


The Civil Service does not always have the right capabilities in the right place to do what is needed.  Digital skills are lacking in an organisation committed to becoming Digital by Default.  With more services being commissioned from outside, the Civil Service needs staff with commissioning and contracting skills; and project management capabilities need a serious upgrade.  These capabilities need to be developed across the Service, which has become too siloed.  Chapter 4 sets out plans to improve capability while building a better Civil Service-wide ethos.

Culture and behaviours

There are many examples of the Civil Service responding quickly and efficiently to new challenges, and innovating with new approaches to old problems. But its culture can be cautious and slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change. This can be deeply frustrating for civil servants themselves, who want to get on and do their jobs the best way they can, and many have raised these concerns through Tell Us How10.

This culture can make it difficult for the Government to adapt swiftly to the needs of the day. There are too few incentives for civil servants to challenge the status quo, or to seek out and implement cost savings or service improvements.  No one’s career suffers from persisting with an inefficient status quo, while those who innovate can feel like they are putting their future at risk.

Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo11, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies, and one that operates in a political, parliamentary and media environment that seizes on mistakes but seldom champions operational success.  It is vital to engage and empower staff, and to create a dynamic and flexible career path.  Staff views have highlighted the importance of performance management, where managers encourage and reward good performance, while dealing rigorously with poor performers. Chapter 5 sets out how we see the modern employment offer for staff.

Leadership and Governance

Change must start at the top. Successful reform will require firm political and corporate leadership across the Civil Service. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have signalled their strong support for the modernisation and reform of the Civil Service, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office has direct Ministerial responsibility for the programme.  He will oversee the implementation of the Plan, chairing a monthly Reform Board including the Government’s Lead Non-Executive board member and other senior Non-Executives. The Head of the Civil Service, Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretaries will be accountable for its delivery through the Civil Service Board.  Within Departments, Boards bring together the political and official leadership with senior Non-Executives from outside the public sector, and will provide robust scrutiny and challenge on departmental progress in implementing these reforms.  Any concerns will feed into the monthly Reform Board meetings through the Lead Non-Executives network.  We are in the process of appointing a Director General of Civil Service Reform, who will be responsible for implementing the reform actions.

We will be transparent and accountable in how we report progress on this action plan.  Every action in this plan will be available to view online on the Civil Service website, and we will report progress on a regular basis.  Furthermore, we will publish a ‘one year on’ report to evaluate progress and assess whether the actions remain relevant to the challenges.

Why this matters

Most civil servants work hard and rightly believe what they do is important. The UK currently faces challenges of unusual severity. The Civil Service has a key role to play in meeting them. Successful implementation of the Reform Plan will make the Civil Service more effective and successful, buttress its role in national life and make it more attractive and fulfilling for the ablest people to spend parts of their careers in public service. The Civil Service has sustained its global reputation over many decades because it has changed successfully with the times: and it can do so again now.

  1. The Context for Civil Service Reform document will be available on the Civil Service website
  2. Cabinet Office Senior Civil Service Database
  3. Office for Budget Responsibility (March 2012), Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Paragraph 3.26: “Our latest estimates for 2011 imply a potential output loss of around 8 per cent against a continuation of a pre-crisis trend. This shortfall widens to around 11 per cent by 2016 as potential growth remains below the pre-recession average…”
  4. Office for National Statistics (May 2012), Public Sector Finances – April 2012. The budget deficit figure used is the 2011/12 public sector current budget excluding the effect of financial sector interventions
  5. Office for National Statistics (2011), Civil Service Statistics – 2011.
  6. Improvements in DWPs sickness absence have moved sickness rates to below the private sector average
  7. Tell Us How consultation included: “Those in the position to change things should consult with staff about possible changes prior to implementation. Surely the people who work the systems and deal with the public are best placed to say what will or won’t work.”
  8. These figures are estimated, based on the Major Projects Authority’s assessments of end to end performance of Major Projects.
  9. Tell us How was launched by the Cabinet Office in March 2012, giving civil servants the chance to have their ideas heard and considered at the centre of government, with the aim of improving services and ways of working.
  10. Tell Us How consultation commented: “Our financial reporting framework does not encourage operational managers to continually seek to do things more effectively, efficiently and therefore in a more cost efficient manner.”

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