Our Civil Service - shaping our future together

August 2020

I prefer HTML to PDF, so I've converted the 2020 Civil Service Shaping Our Future prospectus.

The content was made available under the Open Government Licence version 3.


As civil servants, we have much to be proud of. We work tirelessly for citizens and ministers, always finding a way to get things done. It is the privilege of public service.

But ‘finding a way to get things done’ shouldn’t be the only way we operate. We must face the future with confidence, knowing that we are going about our work in the best way.

We are responding to some of the biggest peacetime challenges this country has faced: from exiting the European Union to COVID-19.

Our response has shown what is great about our Civil Service. We are passionate about improving citizen’s lives. We are willing and able to adapt.

Opportunities arise from challenges and we have a chance to emerge as a stronger, better organisation.

We will face more challenges, that is certain. To overcome them successfully we have to understand the extent of the change needed and be ready to change ourselves.

Whether we’re working on existing priorities or facing new ones – decarbonising the economy or getting citizens back into work following COVID-19 – the need for modernisation is clear.

If we improve the way we work, embrace new technologies and improve our culture we can make the best possible difference for citizens across the country and that is why we choose to be civil servants.

Public service is a privilege. It doesn’t bring great wealth and it is rarely easy, but every day it offers us the chance to improve lives.

Previous attempts to improve the Civil Service provide us with valuable lessons. We should take note of the successes as well as the failures.

We need to build on those successes and the progress we’ve made as we renew our ambition.

We must look at the whole system, at every level. From our people and skills to diversity and inclusion. From the tools we have available to the culture we use them in. We must consider where we are: our location, in our careers, in the delivery of our projects.

This is how we can ensure that our Civil Service is a great place for everyone to be. One in which everyone feels valued, fulfilled and supported to do excellent work.

We have great talent within the Civil Service. To widen and deepen our expertise, more rigorous training and smarter incentives are needed.

Making sure that there is equality of opportunity across the UK is a priority of this government.

We will make the Civil Service less London-centric, with roles across the country. Career progression should no longer depend on location.

It is also right that civil servants are closer and more connected to the communities they serve. This will allow us to better understand the experiences of everyone in our society. Local need and context should inform our decisions.

The world is changing fast. Technological advances are happening all the time. To realise the benefits for citizens, the Civil Service should be more open to innovation.

It should make better use of technology and the data that underpin it when designing and implementing policy.

The Civil Service must create a culture in which there is more room for experimentation. This will increase the pace of learning and improvement.

To find the solutions that work best, we should experiment, so that if things fail, they fail fast on a small scale. This will then allow us to iterate at pace.

We know this is possible. We worked at speed and across boundaries to tackle highly specific problems in response to COVID-19. For example, the creation of the Nightingale intensive care facilities, the acceleration of ventilator production and procurement and the rapid design and creation of a job furlough scheme.

COVID-19 gave us a great sense of national purpose. We should now build on this. We need to make working together as one Civil Service the norm and remove the barriers that prevent it.

What this means for me

By creating an excellent Civil Service today, we ensure the prosperity and happiness of the UK tomorrow. We have a unique opportunity to realise a new, ambitious vision while still retaining the very best of our spirit and achievements so far.

This document invites you to join in building a Civil Service that delivers for citizens. A Civil Service where you can:

  • build a successful career regardless of background or location

  • reach your full potential and access high quality, relevant training to help you develop expertise and do your job well, whatever role you’re in

  • try new ways of doing things and be supported and rewarded for doing so

  • access the data you need to make good decisions

  • use modern technology to deliver a great service and maximise the time available to you to add value

  • work together seamlessly as one team across the whole public sector

  • use the best of the private, public and voluntary sectors as well as academics and other experts to enhance policy and delivery

  • always put citizens at the heart of everything you do, ensuring the services we deliver improve citizen’s lives; the thing we care about most.

A movement for change

This is a change of great scale and ambition. We all have a part to play in achieving it, across all the nations that make up the UK.

Meaningful change relies on a complete picture of what works and what doesn’t. This can only be understood by collecting a diverse range of views. Here, we are seeking your views as civil servants but it is also important for us to listen to the opinions of those outside the Civil Service about how we can serve them better.

This is as much about understanding and retaining the best of what we do as it is about creative new ideas – those things which speak to our core values of honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. To give us the greatest chance of success, this must be a collective effort with senior support from both political and Civil Service leadership, from the centre and departments, from policy to the front line.

Now is the time to be ambitious.

If you’ve felt frustrated by the way things work, held back or lacked the traction you need to try a new idea, now is the time to speak up.

Your views are valuable. They will shape the approach. In fact, some of you helped to develop this document by sharing your thoughts through surveys, engagement events and workshops. These engagement opportunities will continue.

A recent survey showed that collaboration across teams, accessing learning and development, poor communication and outdated infrastructure are stopping you from delivering the best possible services.

The survey confirmed our passion for serving the public and pride in how we responded to COVID-19.

Your views, with data from across government, will help to identify the problems we need to fix. It will also inform the actions we need to take at all levels to improve how we work.

Culture and behaviours are as important as policies and processes. We must challenge ourselves to work in different ways and role model the behaviours we want to see. Culture change is hard to do, but essential if we are to truly improve.

The next part of this document sets out how we can make positive changes so we have:

  • Great people

  • New ideas

  • Better results

Challenges to delivering better public services

We asked Civil Servants: is there anything that prevents the Civil Service from delivering the best services to citizens? Of 1,698 people who responded, here are the range of the challenges they named and the number of people who chose each one:

  • 215 = Cross-team collaboration

  • 173 = Training and learning opportunities

  • 168 = Communication

  • 155 = Tools and infrastructure

  • 116 = Compensation and benefits

  • 80 = Innovation

  • 73 = Teamwork

  • 68 = Management

  • 61 = Hiring and recruiting

  • 58 = Transparency

Great people

The Civil Service is at its best when it reflects the diversity of the country and is able to understand the needs of citizens.

When people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone.

We must be open to talent from across the country, regardless of background or sector. That is not simply about attracting the best people or the processes through which we select candidates. It’s also about how we operate and how we train.

True diversity of thought, ideas and experience will help us solve problems and deliver the very best public services.

We must build an environment which better supports professional development and creative thinking. One in which everyone has the confidence to express their ideas and for those ideas to be heard.

This environment should allow us to combine our skills and expertise to both improve services and tackle the social inequalities that exist in the UK.

Making more opportunities available to work for the Civil Service outside of London is a top priority, at every level.

Our experiences of working flexibly during the COVID-19 crisis should be a lens through which we can see the potential for change.

79% of Grades 6 and 7 based outside London agreed that working in their current location has placed restrictions upon their career.

At the moment, 62% of senior civil servants, and 80% of SCS in policy roles, are based in London. The growth in the number of staff based in London has outpaced growth in all other regions in recent years. We will reverse that trend. By creating sustainable Civil Service hubs outside of London and the South East, we will widen our talent pool.

The Civil Service is at its best when it reflects the diversity of the country and is able to understand the needs of citizens.

When people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone.

We have made progress in our efforts to create a more inclusive and diverse place to work.

Since 2010, the representation of women in the Civil Service has remained above 50%. For grades HEO and above, the proportion of women has increased and is getting closer to achieving gender parity.

The overall percentage of civil servants from an ethnic minority background has increased since 2010 and in 2019, it stood at 12.7%. 14.2% of this year’s Fast Stream intake were of a Black, Asian or an ethnic minority background, notably more than the Civil Service as a whole.

Overall, 11.7% of civil servants recorded that they have a disability in 2019. People with disabilities are less likely to feel included and more likely to report bullying and harassment. It is vital that the Civil Service we create leaves no one behind.

We are also building a stronger understanding of socio-economic background. Around 25% of Senior Civil Servants attended an independent school compared to 7% of the population.

Further types of diversity must be championed. To be a Civil Service that truly reflects the country we serve we must look at cognitive and geographical diversity.

Only half of civil servants felt that the learning and development activities completed in the last 12 months improved their performance. Fewer still felt that the activities completed helped to develop their careers.

To be successful now and in the future, the Civil Service needs to build on the specialisms we already have across a range of functions and improve skills in the use and analysis of data, in harnessing technological developments, commercial and project delivery skills and a much greater emphasis on the development of deep area-specific knowledge.

A properly resourced, high quality curriculum for core and specialised skills will help us to achieve this alongside the ability to recruit openly.

We must also provide the right incentives, so that we reward and recognise expertise, new ideas and make an impact on citizen’s lives.

This is about making improvements for everyone across the whole of the UK.

Share your thoughts on how we can attract the best people, enable them to flourish.

Share your views at shapingourfuture.civilservice.gov.uk

Ideas we are considering include:

  • moving more roles out of London

  • a clear curriculum of core and specialised skills, with higher quality training

  • incentives to stay in post longer and develop deep expertise.

New Ideas

To provide the best services to citizens and successfully tackle the biggest and most complex issues of our time, we need a Civil Service in which people are connected, knowledge is shared and creativity is encouraged.

Our response to COVID-19 has shown that it is possible to react quickly and do things differently. Not every aspect of our current ways of working are sustainable for the long term. But there are many things we should hold onto, like the sense of shared mission.

We need to embrace more experimental, test and learn approaches so we can constantly improve. This will help us to be more confident that our policies will work before we deliver them at full scale.

In 2019, only 50% of civil servants believed it was “safe to challenge the way things are done” in their organisation (2019 People Survey).

Our Civil Service Shaping our future together. New Ideas There should be incentives and rewards for innovation. Testing ideas – trying and failing – are essential components of learning. This must be recognised so that the ideas of today can become the solutions of tomorrow.

That innovation must be matched with rigorous evaluation.

Policy decisions can be improved by ministers and civil servants in a number of ways. For example by putting greater focus on evidence and data; involving outside experts more routinely; by opening ourselves up to scrutiny and challenge.

There is more that we can do to ensure policy making is more inclusive – by drawing on multidisciplinary teams which include analysis, project and operational delivery, finance, commercial and digital experience; by understanding the experience of front line workers and, most importantly, the needs of citizens.

We have made huge progress in how we use technology, transforming the way in which passports are renewed, driving licenses are applied for and citizens are alerted to flooding.

There is untapped potential to make other services and processes work better. The 2019 InCise index ranks the UK 27th in the world for digital services. We need to put technology and the use of data at the heart of all our work, not treat it as an add on.

Too many of us have to wrestle with outdated IT systems that are difficult to use and waste time. These systems are expensive to maintain and result in poor outcomes. We spend up to a third of our working time on processes which could be automated or digitised. This would allow us to focus on the work that makes the greatest impact.

Our response to COVID-19 has shown the fundamental importance of good data but our approach remains fragmented. We do not have a set of common standards – for example, there are more than 20 different ways of identifying individuals and businesses across 10 departments and agencies. There are few incentives to share data, especially where those benefits are gained elsewhere in government.

By making routine the use and sharing of data across government, we can provide seamless services to citizens and help tackle challenges which do not fall within the remit of just one department.

New Ideas Ideas we are considering include:

  • More encouragement and support for people who develop innovative solutions that improve citizens lives

  • Facilitating data sharing across government where it provides citizen benefits

  • Upgrading our legacy IT systems

  • Automating and digitising repetitive tasks, freeing up time and money for activities that have greater impact

  • Shifting the policy-making culture to put more emphasis on effective delivery, evaluation, and outcomes for citizens.

Better results

Across the Civil Service, people are passionate about their jobs because they have an opportunity to improve lives. Doing that better is what this is all about.

Our major projects and programmes can have a huge and positive impact, whether that is building new infrastructure, recruiting new front line staff or implementing new services. If those things face delay or costs increase, that matters.

In 2019, 34% of major government projects had a red or amber/red rating (IPA). To improve this we need to increase our focus on getting things right up front as well as consistent evaluation.

Of the 108 major programmes for which the government is responsible, only 8% are actually assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively and have Our Civil Service Shaping our future together. Better results brought about the desired effects. We must ensure we take full account of the delivery implications of announcements and guard against the temptation to overcommit and underestimate cost.

That requires constant discipline and rigour. We need to recruit, develop and select people with the necessary skills, time and experience and ensure continuity for the time it takes to deliver a project. These skilled professionals need to be appropriately incentivised and supported by high quality oversight from ministers and non executives.

Organisational boundaries can get in the way of working together. Yet the social, economic and environmental challenges we face don’t respect those boundaries.

Some of the difficulties in working across departments relate to culture, funding streams and incentives. However, basic things like IT, building access and HR rules also present barriers that must be addressed.

The centre of government has an important role in setting priorities and strategy and using HM Treasury and Cabinet Office levers to support good decision making.

Ideas we are considering include:

  • more training to develop project delivery skills

  • strengthened planning and scrutiny for major projects

  • reinforced and clarified accountability for delivery

  • ensuring our systems, processes, structures and infrastructure change to support collaboration.

Why now

We have learned how to work differently out of necessity. We have adopted new approaches and we are more joined up than ever before.

We need to keep what we’ve learned, take advantage of the opportunities to improve and make sure we don’t snap back to old ways of working.

We will face new challenges and this is the moment for us to assess and take action so that we can meet them.

This is our moment to make a difference, to become the organisation we want to be and to deliver the very best for citizens across the country.

How you can get involved

Meaningful change cannot be achieved with a ‘top-down’ approach. Improvements must be shaped for and by us all.

Your expertise, your ideas and your energy are needed. We all have a role to play in building our skills and knowledge, enabling ourselves and others to work and think in new, bold, innovative ways.

There will be many opportunities to get involved. Your views will be used to shape the vision and guide the action.

Please share your views and ideas at shapingourfuture.civilservice.gov.uk where you will find updates and further opportunities to be part of the change. A network of change leaders will lead conversations in departments, your internal comms teams will provide more information.

We all need to feel empowered to make changes and improve how we work.

Help build a movement for change in your organisations. By building networks, holding events and sharing success stories, we can broaden the conversation.