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Better government is finally in sight

Richard Digard | Published:

WHEN States members met on Monday for a Policy & Resources briefing ahead of Tuesday’s Budget being released, they anticipated Gavin St Pier running through the financial figures.

Finally getting their ducks in a row?

Instead, they got States chief executive Paul Whitfield announcing little short of revolution: the civil service would no longer be organised along the lines of the island’s political committee structure.

Instead, in the most determined onslaught on the existing silo mentality that still so fragments and hamstrings government, departments would have the daily expert advice they required, plus better access to resources as needed.

Crucially, however, policy development, guidance and support would be overseen by higher level individuals unattached to any committee and able to see across government and help it achieve its business plan. No more dedicated committee chief officers.

It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. Significant autonomy and freedom to implement proposals just as they pleased were suddenly at risk – as were at least 200 civil service jobs.

There’s a curiosity in public life. Most, if not all, deputies are in favour of civil service reform and job cuts – unless, that is, the change occurs on their patch, in which case it needs to be resisted.

So it was on Monday, with some of those present apparently strident in their opposition to the changes and demanding that the reform package be taken to the States for approval.

That, obviously, is code for stopping, delaying and/or watering down.

I mention this because taxpayers need to be acutely aware of what’s at stake here. The Whitfield reforms are what the IoD, Chamber of Commerce, CGi, this newspaper, myself and many others have been calling for over the years. So they’re long overdue.

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By putting users first and redesigning the way services are delivered, many posts will simply become redundant.

At the same time, traditional pay grades are being de-layered and reduced: down from 56 to perhaps just 10. Yes, there will be fewer managers and those who remain will have more to do and more staff for whom they are responsible.

More generally, the changes will release what are termed ‘senior’ civil servants – from the figures released, on an average of £50,000-plus – just at a time when the island has more than 1,000 job vacancies.

What’s not widely recognised is that the reforms also include putting the existing leadership team at risk by inviting applicants for the new strategic leadership posts. Those subsequently appointed will be on virtual fixed-term contracts with break points and performance reviews.

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That performance will be aligned to government priorities as set by the business plan and not simply dictated by committees. As such, this should better reflect cross-department government realities rather than committee aspirations.

So in theory, fewer unenforceable 25mph zones being introduced on a whim and a bit more focus on productivity and ease of movement around the island’s highways and no spending £15m. over 10 years not to get a waste strategy together in that time. Or finally implementing a refuse charging strategy that’s so unfair to the least well off that Employment & Social Security – and the taxpayer – have to take emergency steps to mitigate it.

Talk to some committee presidents and civil servants and they’ll deny the existence of silos and explain the extraordinary lengths everyone goes to in order to break them down.

Well, they might believe that, but it’s not true. For example, if you’re trying to access adult care, perhaps for an elderly relative, you could be forced into 29 separate contact points with ‘the States’, involving 30 professionals across 11 different services, themselves overseen by four different committees.

I’m not sure I’d call that joined-up, silo-free government and there are many more similar examples that can be identified.

So the proposals – disclosed in the Budget because they require £8m.to fund the redundancies to achieve a £10m. a year pay-back – are designed to end that.

In his open letter to staff released after briefing States members, Mr Whitfield said: ‘I am under no illusions that this is a significant programme of change. I am, however, absolutely confident that it will be delivered.’

That’s pretty much a personal guarantee it will be, unless there’s political opposition willing to sacrifice making things better and saving taxpayer funds in pursuit of narrow committee interests.

We can say that with some confidence because of the timing of the announcement.

The changes effectively confirm the criticisms of consultant Capita, back in 2009, that the States were profligate and sometimes providing services for no reason; and those of the Wales Audit Office, also the same year, that there were significant weaknesses in current governance arrangements.

In each case the silo approach of government was blamed. Today, the civil service union Prospect acknowledges that change needs to come, hasn’t resisted the job losses and merely asks that they are handled properly.

Additionally, existing changes in the public sector have visibly started to shift cultures and many younger, more ambitious officers can see advantages in losing 200, or possibly more, colleagues to accelerate the reforms they see as obvious, essential and overdue.

Look at it another way and you can see ducks starting to line up. Many will have been frustrated by the timescale to date, but the HR and IT capability needed to underpin these changes has been improved. An expectation of change has been instilled in the service, a strategic workforce review started and an overhaul of contracts and terms and conditions almost completed.

All that’s left is political buy-in. With it, headcount savings could reach £17m. a year and job losses significantly exceed the stated 200-plus.

Without it..? Well, don’t go there.

But it looks to me that irrespective of politics, public sector bosses and Policy & Resources have identified that significant reform to achieve better, more joined-up government for less

cost is now possible – and they’re

going for it.

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