THE PROBLEM

 

The British system of public administration was designed in the 19th Century and, despite its strengths, is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country. Modern governments face immense fiscal pressures, a rising demand for services, growing public expectations and the need to improve international competitiveness. But all have found difficulty in matching strategic vision with execution.

One administration after the other has encountered problems delivering major projects, often arising from inadequate skills and confused accountability. Long-term societal challenges require joined-up policy, yet the traditional organisation of government creates fiercely separate departments. Paradoxically, while a weak centre exercises poor financial control in Whitehall, an entrenched centralism in the British state has seen the drive for localism stall. 

The consequences of sub-optimal government go beyond the financial costs. The weakest pay the highest price from a failure to tackle entrenched social problems. And when public confidence in the ability of government to deliver is persistently undermined, faith in politics is eroded.

Significant attempts have been made by successive governments to improve delivery and performance. But problems remain while the pressures grow. Tomorrow's government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better able to organise itself to meet societal challenges, and more responsive to citizens. 

These issues are as much about politicians as they are the civil service. The capacity of ministers, the role of advisers, the adequacy of Parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive and the prevalence of short-termism all need to be addressed.