After Boris Johnson: what now for the civil service?

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Alex Thomas

July 10, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at how to grip the civil service reform agenda.

With the Johnson era coming to a close, the civil service’s leaders need to find their voices, assert how best to run the institution, set a clear purpose and learn – and be seen to learn – from the nadir of partygate. Failure to do so could tip a battered and bruised institution into crisis and lead to a loss of capacity in what the state can deliver. This report recognises the civil service’s vital role but warns that it has been weakened by high-profile policy and operational failures like the Kabul evacuation and pandemic contingency plans, and damaged by the partygate fallout. This comes alongside strained relations with a government at times seeking to scapegoat civil servants and wrongly confusing honest advice with disloyalty. The demise of that government will not remove all these concerns overnight. With officials having to respond to Boris Johnson’s anarchic approach to governing and some ministers uninterested in getting the best out of civil servants, the paper calls on cabinet secretary Simon Case to grip the civil service reform agenda – and be clear, which involves speaking on the record, about the risks of incoherent government plans for arbitrary headcount targets and crude tactics to shame workers back into the office. But for the long-term health of the organisation Case, and other senior officials, must also address the civil service’s own failings. There must be a return to a serious programme of government reform, including reviews of departments to assess their strengths and weaknesses and a proper workforce plan to work out the right size and shape for the civil service. Permanent secretaries can then be better held to account for running their organisations.