Whitehall review welcomed but business told to keep out

Senior civil servants have welcomed proposals to review the leadership and strategic capabilities of Whitehall departments, but have warned business not to use the reviews as an excuse to attack the public sector.

Under plans outlined by cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell last week, all government departments will be reviewed in the coming months, looking at issues such as levels of performance and people skills. A pilot will begin in an unspecified department in December, with the aim of rolling the scheme out across Whitehall in 2006 and 2007.

The First Division Association (FDA) – the union that represents senior civil servants – broadly welcomed the proposals, admitting that input from the private, wider public and voluntary sectors was sensible.

But it warned that the Cabinet Office and the Treasury must be prepared to offer the necessary support to departments to help them deliver their action plans.

The CBI, which has consistently called for more rigorous scrutiny of performance across the public sector, described the capability review proposals as “a welcome step in the right direction”.

Sir Digby Jones, CBI director general, said: “The new cabinet secretary has much to do and business will want to be sure that he delivers, but his approach is certainly a welcome breath of fresh air.”

But the FDA slammed CBI suggestions that the civil service does not have adequate performance measures, saying it was “easy for the CBI to throw around comments to suit their own agenda”.

“What [the CBI] is trying to do is undermine confidence in the Civil Service to push more business to the private sector and consultants – often amateurs, even if gifted, who have little understanding of how the Civil Service works,” a spokesman said.

“Through the new Professional Skills in Government programme and the new National School of Government, the Civil Service is taking a proactive approach to further develop skills in areas such as leadership and operations,” he added.

The plans for the reviews emerged in a note from O’Donnell to the Public Administration Select Committee. The programme will be run by the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, which is responsible for monitoring and pushing through public sector reforms.

Focus of the reviews

The departmental capability reviews will be specifically targeted at underlying capability issues that cause delivery problems:

  • Do departments have the right strategic and leadership capabilities?
  • Do departments know how well they are performing, and do they have the tools to fix their problems when they under-achieve?
  • Do their people have the right skills to meet both current and future challenges?
  • Do they engage effectively with their key stakeholders, partners and the public?

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