Tory manifesto author says Whitehall needs pivot towards ‘data science and super-forecasting’

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Richard Johnstone on 7 January 2020 in News
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Rachel Wolf sets out reform ambitions and claims civil service is dominated by humanities graduates

Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Civil servants are “woefully unprepared” for "seismic" changes to their working culture being planned by Downing Street, which could include annual exams, the author of the Conservative Party’s manifesto has declared.

Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservatives' election blueprint, said officials could face tests in a bid to end what she called an environment where “everyone rises to their position of incompetence", a comment branded insulting by civil service union chiefs.

Writing in The Telegraph, Wolf, a former adviser to Boris Johnson who now works for the lobbying firm Public First, called for a host of changes to the working culture of Whitehall, encompassing recruitment, training and the frequency of job changes.

Arguing that the civil service is currently dominated by officials with humanities degrees, Wolf said No.10 would ensure training is "taken more seriously" once people are in post.


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"Data science, systems thinking, and super-forecasting [a set of techniques used to forecast social, political and financial events] will be on the list," she said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if officials, and special advisers, were set exams."

Wolf meanwhile hit out at what she called the "merry-go-round" of frequent role changes for civil servants, arguing that "any official who has spent more than 18 months in a post is seen to have stalled" because the organisation values "transferable" skills more than hard knowledge.

She added: "This has catastrophic effects. It ensures the 'Peter Principle' – where everyone rises to their position of incompetence – is ever-present. It kills institutional memory and expertise. It allows officials an escape from accountability."

The Conservative manifesto author said officials should be “kept on projects where they know the background” under No.10's plans, and, in a move that could anger civil service unions, she hinted at a “rethink of incentives, numbers, and pay”.

Urging Downing Street to oversee a wider overhaul of the organisation, Wolf said civil servants are too focused on "stakeholders" and not the public.

"Too many officials see special interests as their customers," she argued. "The government understands that in five years it won’t be judged on the way the civil service is designed but on whether it has delivered on its promises."

FDA union general secretary Dave Penman said Wolf’s comments showed "a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service".

And he suggested the proposals talked up by Wolf were less radical than coalition era reforms led by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who brought in a since-abolished system of forced distribution and increased the requirement for central approval of government spending.

"Whilst those advocating reform may like to paint the civil service as antiquated or resistant to change, the reality is somewhat different," Penman told PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome. "The UK civil service, recently ranked first in an international analysis of effectiveness, has had to constantly reform and adapt as each government sets out its new priorities.”

He added: "Indeed, the reforms being trailed are more modest than, say, the challenges the civil service faced in 2010. Whilst supporting the first coalition government since the Second World War, it had to manage cuts of 20% in resources, deliver a radical policy agenda and at the same time institute a series of reforms under Francis Maude, transforming how government worked."

 

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