Governments come and go, each promising to deliver change and reforms to improve the economy and society.


Governments come and go, each promising to deliver change and reforms to improve the economy and society.

But government policy and strategy are filtered through and buffered by a civil service and it looks as if long-running attempts to reform the British Civil Service have met with little success. A recent report into the way the Civil Service works found it relied too much on ‘generalist amateurs’, distrusted outsiders (including people in government), was overly tolerant of poor management and was an organization where promotion was linked to tenure and conformity rather than innovation. Similar conclusions were made in a previous review in 1967 – so it seems the criticisms have been around for quite a time! Other criticisms levelled at the Civil Service are that it is too big, overstaffed, that sickness absence is high, and that it is a ‘wet blanket’ that smothers ideas.

The Civil Service recruits some of the smartest graduates available and has rigorous selection processes – so we can safely assume that its employees are quite capable of understanding what government ministers want to do. However, working in Whitehall is characterized by conformism to rules and procedures rather than risk taking; conformity gets rewarded and is what gets people promoted. Several recent high-profile projects have been delayed and/or have seen costs over-run. The culture is one of caution and of giving advice to ministers (arguably good characteristics), but it is also characterized as being weak, particularly when it comes to making changes to itself.

One of the tensions, of course, is that most ministers are often in post for a short time only, perhaps only a few months, whereas the nation has to be administered for the long run. Arguably, it is in the public interest to have a cautious civil service to intervene between short-lived ministers, many of whom, despite their new ideas, have little experience of anything outside politics and public relations.

The situation has been described as a power struggle fought at the highest level between senior career civil servants and government ministers. Another observer concluded that people just have different views and there are vested interests that get in the way of making changes. A former UK prime minister remarked that the ‘traditional skill set of the Civil Service’ is not what is required to drive through the changes needed; at least the changes needed by government.


1. Assuming that the claims made about the Civil Service are fair, why do you think that the Service has been able to resist cultural change over such a long period?

2. Why do you think that successive governments have been unable to introduce cultural change in the Civil Service?

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Organizational Change

ISBN: 9781292243436

6th Edition

Authors: Barbara Senior, Stephen Swailes, Colin Carnall

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