Demos Daily: Transforming the Dinosaurs

The decision to merge the FCO with DfID, and civil service chief Sir Mark Sedwill’s resignation are supposedly part of a wider shake up No.10 has in store for the civil service and the way it works. Over the years, successive Governments have planned to make their own organisational changes to the civil service – yet if allegations are true, this could mark the most significant shift in some time. However, if there is a need for a change in culture within Government organisations, the kind of change that’s needed should be carefully thought through. 

Back in 1993, Sir Douglas Hague wrote a pamphlet considering the fitness of the cultures of British organisations, such as the civil service, for the modern world. He gave examples of steps that can be taken to change cultures for the better. Read the introduction of Transforming the dinosaurs below, or the full pamphlet here.

Introduction

There is an anxiety across the land. During 1993 it began with sport and went deeper than British performance against the New Zealanders in rugby, the Australians in cricket and the world in soccer and tennis. The critics did not expect Britain to win all the races but they did expect us to be able to run them. The failure even to start the 1993 Grand National exposed the British racing authorities to ridicule, and appeared to symbolise a wider national failure.

Unhappiness, if not quite ridicule, then moved on to more august institutions. The current attack is concentrating on the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the Bank of England. The daily sight of Parliament on television raises doubts about whether the way it works and behaves is appropriate at the end of the 20th century. No institution is exempt. A recent television debate on a motion calling for ‘fundamental change’ in the British monarchy was defeated by a mere handful of votes in a total of over 250.

What is under attack is our national culture or, more precisely, the individual cultures of the institutions which make it up. This paper considers the fitness for the modern world of the cultures of British organisations, grand or common-place.

Its positive argument is that steps can be taken to change cultures for the better.

In the 1960s, the public image of British Gas made it the butt of national jokes – witness the success of the Flanders/Swann satirical song, ‘The gas man cometh!’ But recently, an opinion survey put British Gas second only to Marks and Spencer in public esteem. Of course, public image is not the same as actual performance, but given the amount of contact between employees of British Gas and the public, the two cannot be widely different. British Gas has made an impressive change in its culture. Over the same period British Rail, whose public image in the 1960s was much better than that of British Gas, has come to occupy roughly the position previously held by British Gas.

In the 1980s, private-sector organisations’ main concern was to respond to outside pressures. Competition and recession led managers to cut costs, to reduce labour forces and to keep inventories down. In the public-sector there was a similar emphasis, and innovations like the financial management initiative dominated thinking.

In the 1990s, by contrast, the primary task in both sectors must be to launch a cultural revolution.