From atrophy to outward-looking: change management and the UK civil service

24 July 2019 -

London streetNowhere has the impact of change management been felt more than in the UK Civil Service

Matthew Rock

For decades Whitehall was a dreamy, unchanging world, an oasis of continuity and wise counsel at the centre of British life. The financial crisis of 2008 changed all that, ushering in a decade of deep cuts to public services, from bin collections to the Foreign Office. Schools, hospitals and entire local authority areas have been pummelled into ‘special measures’ by the sheer scale of the cuts. All over the UK, hundreds of public-sector organisations have had to cope with the new world of ‘doing more with less’.

But have these organisations really changed or have they simply had their resources slashed? The distinction is vital and one that’s recognised by the man charged with transforming the Civil Service, chief executive John Manzoni.

Manzoni joined the Civil Service in 2014 after a long and, latterly, painful career in the oil and gas industry. He was the man in charge when the Texas City Refinery blew up in 2005, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. An internal BP investigation said he should have done more to mitigate the risks building up at the refinery. To this day, Manzoni’s voice chokes when he recalls those horrific events.

When Manzoni took the reins at the civil service – he was originally recruited to run ‘major projects’ – he soon concluded that the whole austerity drive had “run out of road... We couldn’t just beat the horses to run faster and work harder”. Demand for public services was rising but budgets were still being cut. If true change were to take root, something different would be needed.

Speaking to a conference last year at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Manzoni described what he’d been doing at the Civil Service to change it in a deeper way, beyond implementing more and more efficiency drives.

Manzoni of the moment

One of his early observations was that the Civil Service had a “stunningly siloed” structure. “We’re a constitutional barony,” he laughs. There were 28 vertical silos, each with their own way of doing things, and no central HR, finance, legal or technology functions. His diagnosis? “Pretty deep rewiring” was required.

So Manzoni started work on a “functional matrix” that cuts across the Civil Service – the kind of thing that’s commonplace in the private sector but not government. This new structure, along with some key hires in functions such as HR and technology, started to provide proper visibility and efficiency across the whole Civil Service. The Civil Service, at last, began to acquire a back office. Positive consequences began to flow. Standards can now be set across the Civil Service: “We can say: ‘Actually, this is how we do this,’” Manzoni notes.

And the organisation can start to provide proper career pathways for its talent, rather than people hopping between departments with utterly different cultures.

“These functional structures do lots of things,” Manzoni adds. “They are an access point through which we can repopulate professional skills back into the Civil Service. We can hire project people; we can hire financial people. We can repopulate those delivery skills back into the Civil Service.”

But this is just the start, says Manzoni. The next step is to digitise all government services.

A number of people have questioned Manzoni’s commitment to the digital agenda. The Government Digital Service is being undermined by Whitehall, say Civil Service-watchers such as Derek du Preez of Diginomica. He and others believe Manzoni – not a digital native – is powerless to resist the vested interests in large departments such as HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions. But Manzoni points to the driving licence system, self-assessment and Universal Credit as examples of digital government in action. “[Universal Credit] isn’t just the front end digitally; it isn’t just bringing six or seven benefits together. Actually, what it’s doing is changing the way 60,000 or so civil servants... are working.” Making Tax Digital, another huge change, will save billions and mean that people can pay taxes as they go, says Manzoni.

The scale of the transformation is huge: departments and offices are being merged; joint offices and ‘hubs’ are being created. “There are levels of change going on in the Civil Service that any company would deem totally and utterly irresponsible,” insists Manzoni.

Public-sector managers say that such relentless change is damaging morale and even the health of employees. One told the CMI’s official publication Professional Manager: “The appetite for change is higher than the risk capability and resource capacity to deliver it.” There is little focus on ‘change fatigue’ and its emotional impacts, she says, and as a result half of her time is taken up with managing “the wellbeing fallout of poor change”.

Another civil servant, who works in a body where functions are being centralised, described “crowded accommodation” and emotional “upset”. This, in turn, can affect behaviour and productivity. “Where people are trying to feel needed and prominent, they remove work from others and take it on themselves. Displaced employees feel threatened by this and staff engagement is a real struggle.”

Both of these civil servants appealed for better, more emotionally sensitive communications to make the change process more palatable. “Don’t rely on logic and strategy to get you there – talk to people’s emotions,” said one.

“Communication is key,” said our other interviewee. “Keeping employees engaged and understanding the reasons for the change is more likely to get them onside.” He also encouraged managers not to be afraid of resistance to change, but instead to see if they can provoke resistance and use suggestions and complaints to improve the ideas they are trying to implement: “This also shows authenticity – ‘You said, we did…’ – to the workforce.”

In conclusion

When Manzoni joined, the Civil Service had “atrophied its execution skills”, he says. Civil servants were spending their time looking upwards (to ministers) rather than outwards (at citizens). Not good.

“Last time I checked, you don’t deliver much by looking upwards. You deliver by looking forwards, downwards and outwards,” says Manzoni.

“If you start to define yourself by the quality of advice to ministers, then you can imagine over time how the leadership model starts to become distorted about what is important.”

The most lasting change in the Civil Service may take the longest time to measure.

This is an edited extract from an article originally published in the spring 2019 edition of Professional Manager, the official magazine for CMI members. This article is based on a speech by John Manzoni given to the Centre for Army Leadership in October 2018.

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