Minister for the Cabinet Office, John Glen’s speech at the Institute for Government’s Annual Conference 2024

Minister for the Cabinet Office John Glen's speech on the government’s long-term commitment to modernisation and reform in the Civil Service

The Rt Hon John Glen MP

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here with you all today.

I would like to start by thanking the Institute for Government for hosting this event. In particular, thank you to Dr Hannah White for her engagement leading up to it. I enjoyed your blog and the recently released Whitehall monitor.

Today, I want to outline the next steps of civil service reform and how I will build on my predecessors’ work to make the Civil Service a lean, keen and productive machine.

But, before I look to the future, I would like to look to the past. 

Modernisation and reform have always been a crucial part of the Civil Service. 

In fact, the modern Civil Service was born out of a report f- as I’m sure many of you know - from 1854, one that argued the case for urgent reform. 

The Northcote-Trevelyan Report focused on creating a permanent Civil Service based on integrity and honesty.

Now, I’m paraphrasing here, but the report ends by stating: “Our priorities are, to provide efficient public servants, to foster merit, to overcome the fragmentary nature of the service”. 

To get the best people to encourage good work, to improve the structures of central government.

It could have been written yesterday, but actually next month that report celebrates its 170th anniversary. 

I think these priorities will speak to the public’s concerns. They want a public service that is easy to navigate, one where the best people are in the right jobs, where their lives are made easier by Government decisions. 

It’s these priorities that I will discuss today and how I will seek to help the Civil Service to achieve them.

Recent Change & Future Challenge

Now, the size of our Civil Service has always shifted.

It shrunk following the financial crisis after 2010, in 2016, it grew to deliver Brexit and it grew in 2020 to respond to the pandemic. 

It’s clear that if the world changes, the Civil Service must change, too. And this is right – the public would expect an adaptive and agile service, one that can respond to the big challenges facing the country.

Just think of the Furlough scheme, the AI Safety Summit, or all the work that’s gone into making us one of the highest performing education leaders in the world, these are significant achievements worth remembering. 

It is also worth remembering the range of roles in the Civil Service.

They make up our government departments, agencies and public bodies, but they’re also the people who translate policies of politicians into action.

They work incredibly hard but crucially hard work does not always equal great productivity. 

We must improve to keep pace with innovation in the private sector. For too long, productivity in the public sector has not been a high-enough priority, we have thrown more people at our biggest challenges, but have more to do to embrace the potential of technology and innovative ways of working.  

As a recent Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I know that public finances are tight, they are always tight. Having established the Public Sector Productivity Review, I focused on squeezing every pound to deliver for taxpayers and I carry that focus with me in my new role in the Cabinet Office.

I know how important it is that the Civil Service cracks its productivity puzzle, because doing so will open the door to greater productivity across our entire public sector.

We can only afford a Civil Service that embraces innovation, especially when we consider the challenges ahead. 

Demand for public services is growing – not just because of the immediate cost-of-living pressures, but an ageing population means we need to carefully consider many of our policies. 

The cost of running Government is also increasing – tech costs more, and Government debt costs more to manage. 

So, we have a public that is rightly expecting more, but it is also costing us more just to stand still.

As the Minister responsible for Civil Service reform, I am relentlessly focused on its future.

It is clear we have to do more with less, but I don’t think it’s about cutting corners.

It’s about being more productive. It’s about encouraging the best possible performance. It’s about bringing our people with us, to embrace the possibilities that modernisation brings.

Changes Already Made 

Now, I hope I’m not arrogant enough – 10 weeks into the job – to think I’m the first to recognise these challenges.

My predecessors have set some fantastic work in motion already – most recently Sir Jeremy Quin, and not least the inimitable Lord Maude and his series of reforms. I was happy to discuss this speech with him yesterday evening. 

The foundation for my work is the Declaration on Government Reform led by Michael Gove in 2021, where all permanent secretaries and the Cabinet agreed a programme of reform. 

It was an ambitious programme focussed on greater efficiency and productivity – and we’ve already made some great progress. 

Like merging 200 legacy IT systems into 5 corporate services. 

And we’ve moved 16,000 London Civil Service roles into cities like Aberdeen, Cardiff, Wrexham and Belfast, making a Civil Service representative of the public it serves.

That’s all good, but what’s missing?

For me, there are three areas we can focus on to accelerate Civil Service modernisation: embedding technology, embracing simplicity, and enabling people’s potential. 

Embedding Technology

So, first, let me turn to technology. 

My vision is that every single civil servant is either actively delivering – or enabled by – digital technology in their day-to-day job, whether that’s eliminating bureaucracy. or coming up with new ideas to support our citizens. 

Much of the focus is on how we in Government use AI, but I am clear that is not an inevitable solution. 

AI will only work if it’s properly embedded, if it’s clear why and how we’re using it, and that civil servants get the right training and support to use it well. 

I’m pleased to say we are already taking exciting first steps to unlock the benefits of generative AI, ensuring that our AI teams are working with industry experts, in order to solve some of the public sector’s most pressing problems. 

Like launching AI pilots to make it easier for people to claim compensation in the case of criminal injury.

I believe better use of technology allows us to encapsulate everything that I’ve already spoken about: powered by the right people, it will improve how we deliver to the public at lower cost.

For example: before, if you wanted to sign a mortgage deed, complete a DBS check, or manage your company’s apprenticeship scheme, you had to sign in to each specific Government website, re-enter your personal details again and again and again.

So, we released a Gov.UK app that uses the One Login system, it’s already been downloaded 4.5 million times, and it has whittled 29 service logins down to just one sign-in process.

It’s so successful we’re rolling it out to over 100 other services this year. 

It’s a great example of how we can better serve the public especially where they engage directly with public service.

Embrace Simplicity

But tech and artificial intelligence are not a one-size fits all solution to our issues, I believe there is a lot we can do by simplifying our processes.

Inevitably, the Government is – and always will be – a complex organisation. But I fear that now, it’s more complex than it needs to be.

Complex processes hide inefficiencies, simplifying how we work will make the Civil Service more productive, and will help us improve public services.

I want to acknowledge the work of my Ministerial colleague Esther McVey, who has come into her new post in the Cabinet Office to root out our inefficiencies.

She brings a refreshing clarity and analysis to how the Government works, a clarity which I – and the public – truly welcome. 

It was a vision shared by Lord Maude, who also wanted to see improved accountability.

Today, we are considering ways to improve accountability in the Civil Service, including accountability to ministers.

The public expect no less, because they too want the processes and services they use to be more straightforward.  

Take Universal Credit, for instance: it replaced a complicated landscape of multiple benefits administered by multiple organisations.

When we were delivering it, people were complaining it was taking too long, but we stuck to it, and steadily implemented it, and now, five years after its introduction, the change it has brought is remarkable. 

It provided essential support throughout the pandemic rapidly, and will save £650m per year by 2027.

Now – that was a big idea with big benefits and it didn’t just happen. 

It took the combined effort of civil servants, local councils, politicians and thousands more to make it work. 

I pay tribute to them all, who – over half a generation – have transformed this complex service into a simple and productive one.

Projects like that demonstrate how our approach to policy development needs to change.

It needs to prioritise productivity as a goal from the outset, and ensure we are building an evidence base demonstrating which interventions work and which don’t. 

But it’s not just the public-facing work we need to reconsider we also need to re-evaluate the labyrinth of processes that make up the back office of government.

That means doubling down on the functional reform agenda that Lord Maude began.

Which is why we introduced functions in 2013 to raise standards of specialist work across government.

Renewed approaches to functions like commercial, finance and project delivery have delivered £7.8bn in efficiencies just between 2020 and 2022.

But we need to go further, and actually create a way of doing things that gets things done well and done quickly. 

So let me give you an example of the kind of efficiency I’m talking about.

Let’s say you’re a new civil servant, and it’s your first day in a Government department.

You need to get an ID card, but security clearance is a rigorous process, and for some that can take many months, so you get a temporary pass.

You need a laptop, but I.T. don’t have one available, so you have someone else print out all your induction material, and you remain offline for a while in a very online world.

It’s now a couple of weeks. Without proper access to the building, you don’t have a laptop and you don’t have an online account, and to resolve each one of these pressing issues, you have to speak to a different person. 

Does this sound productive to you? Of course it doesn’t.

From launching a job advert to getting that new civil servant sat at their desk, takes – an astonishing average – of up to 115 days. 

We can, we must and we will do better.

Which is why we are piloting a new model to make one person accountable for this process end to end, making sure that new starters in the Civil Service can start quickly with all their needs met and be productive from day one. 

Enabling People’s Potential

That leads me on to my final focus for my speech - people. 

Undeniably, people are the Civil Service’s greatest asset, but I believe that the current system is letting us all down and doesn’t enable our staff to achieve their best. 

Complex structures mean that measuring progress can be difficult, our ways of incentivising high-quality performance are limited, people feel like the only way they can progress is to shuffle roles, all leading to dissatisfaction which, of course, results in the Civil Service churn being too high.

It’s a serious challenge for us – one which the IFG says costs the public nearly £36m a year on recruitment, training and loss of productivity.

We know that pay isn’t everything for civil servants, but it is undeniable that it is a deciding factor for them to move roles.

Pay, too, can prevent the external talent the Civil Service desperately needs.
Only one in five successful Senior Civil Service recruits is external, and vacancy rates for crucial digital and data professionals are at 15%, which undermines our digital transformation ambitions. 

So, my ambition is simple: a smaller, more skilled Civil Service that is better rewarded. 

Its simplicity masks the challenge, however, in implementing it, but I believe the time to make that change is now. 

Which is why I am pleased that we are reviewing our pay framework for digital and data professionals, to ensure these roles can compete with similar roles in the private sector, especially those that will be at the forefront of AI delivery.

Not only will this attract and retain talent, but it will also save the taxpayer money, with savings of up to £270m by reducing reliance on expensive contractors.

My message to today’s tech leaders is this: yes, the Civil Service is doing everything it can to compete on pay – but no tech giant, no FTSE100 company, no unicorn anywhere will ever compete with the level of the work you will do in the Civil Service.

I have been fortunate enough to work in a number of Government departments, alongside many great people and some of them are here today. I’m loathed to name any of them individually, yet the commitment they showed me, the great advice they have given me, and go the extra mile –  all this allowed me to achieve everything I could. 

That environment often comes down to the culture our line managers create, they help improve performance, giving their teams clarity, support and accountability.  

When line management is done well, it is transformational. There are over 100,000 civil servants with line management duties and, if they’re good at their job, this can improve productivity by providing clear expectations, training and support for their teams. 

We also know that standards of performance management can too often vary between teams and departments. 

Staff might not be getting full, honest feedback that helps them address issues, or help them progress their career at the right pace. 

That is why we will be setting out the line management standards we want across the Civil Service and providing the support to managers they need to achieve these.

Yet, in some cases, consistently underperforming staff can languish in roles, or move between departments without properly addressing the reasons for poor performance. 

In the worst cases, managers can too often feel unable to remove consistently poor performers

This is a problem that needs a solution, which is why I’m pleased to announce that I will work with Civil Service leaders to review our performance management approach.

This will build on the best practice already happening across much of the Civil Service and it’s only fair to our staff that we support them with proper, honest management.

But let me be clear - we are not dodging our responsibilities to deal with bad performance.

Where there is consistent poor performance in a very small minority of staff, we must take necessary action to address that. 

It’s something which is a cause of real frustration for our civil servants – particularly senior civil servants – some of whom can feel they have to tiptoe around a colleague’s lacklustre performance, or have to work extra hard to make up for it. 

It’s just one of the many things that frustrate them which can be resolved by better management. Another is working from the office. 

There is no denying that there are many benefits to colleagues working all together in an office. People can be more productive, and complex tasks often can be overcome more efficiently. 

I have already set out the expectation for staff to be in the office at least 60% of the time, and I believe that our senior civil servants need to set an example as leaders. 

I want to consider how this expectation can be baked into our management of senior staff, which is why we will be making this distinction clearer for senior civil servants at the start of the performance year. 

Ultimately, I want staff to bring themselves - their ideas, their passion and their dedication - into the office to tackle problems together.

I’ve already spoken about how we are building a public sector that reflects the society it serves, but I know there have been questions raised on the role of staff networks in supporting that effort. 

Now, I’m sincerely grateful to the work of civil servants to make their profession open and inclusive. 

Staff networks can create collaborative spaces, build a sense of belonging, helping us to work across-departments.   

But, managing these networks should not become a second job.

I believe we have an opportunity to improve how these networks operate and ensure they do not impact our broader productivity.

So I have been working with Ministerial colleague Esther McVey to look into how staff networks operate across the civil service, and we will be publishing guidance in due course.

We must also ensure these networks uphold the Civil Service’s long-established rules on impartiality.

That’s why we are introducing new impartiality guidance which will support Civil Servants to remain objective when engaging in diversity and inclusion work.

We must make sure our civil servants can express themselves and maintain the trust and confidence of the public.  


So, ladies and gentlemen, we have seen – whether it’s in 1854 or in 2024 – our civil servants have the capacity to adapt to the challenges of the day, but we must adapt today to prepare for the urgent challenges of tomorrow. 

Over the next six months, I will address these and other Civil Service priorities, including the use of consultants in the public sector, and the responsibility of public bodies to the government. 

But, for today, I want to reaffirm the kind of Civil Service I want to help create: a Civil Service that can meet the productivity challenge, where the most innovative and inspired minds are called to serve, to stay, and to be successful and fulfilled, where our processes are borne of robust evaluation, where innovation supports how people actually use our public services. 

Our citizens deserve nothing less, and I believe we can do so much more to serve them better.

Thank you very much.

Cabinet Office
The Rt Hon John Glen MP