The desk drawers are empty. The recycling bin is full. The last email has been sent. The coffee mug has been washed and put away. The farewells have been said. Time to move on.

I am not going very far, just from one government department to another. A couple of hundred yards as the crow flies, a five minute stroll through the streets of Westminster. It couldn’t be simpler. Could it?

It’s all a bit of an eye opener. There is one civil service supporting one government. But just now it doesn’t much feel like it.

I am not losing my job, but I will get a P45, as I move from one payroll to another. I have an old email address and I have a new email address, but there is no connection between them. I have some files created and accumulated in the old job which might be helpful in the new, but they will become inaccessible unless I move them, and there is no easy way to move them. Each department has an intranet and a directory, but neither is visible from the other.

I don’t know how many civil servants move between departments in the course of a year. Probably not many as a proportion of the total. Optimising systems for those who stay rather than those who move may be practical and pragmatic. But every one of those small barriers is a part of a bigger barrier.

Sending me a P45 may only be a curious by-product of an arcane piece of HMRC bookkeeping, but the message is no less clear for being unintended: there is not one civil service but many, not a continent but an archipelago.

Does any of that matter? The Civil Service Reform Plan suggests that it does:

Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies

Other governments seem to manage this slightly better. I can work out who does what in the Australian government far more easily than in my own, though I am an outsider to the former and supposedly an insider in the latter.

All too often the boring things get left until last, or just don’t get done at all, for no better or worse reason than that they are boring. I am not looking for one huge and monolithic system, carefully designed to be as consistently useless to as many people as possible. But a bit of shared information, a recognition that identities persist when their owners move around and some federation of infrastructure would all help make more tangible the ephemeral goal of joined up government.

Three years after writing that post, I travelled back across the park – and wrote another post about what had changed in making the journey, and what had not.


  1. Best of luck! I’m sure I was told that back in the day, you had to resign your position when you moved from one department to another.

    1. Thanks – though my 270 yards doesn’t really register in comparison with your rather more dramatic approach to leaving jobs.

  2. Very best of luck in the new job!
    I’m surprised that it’s so disjointed between different departments, especially in this digital age. I thought I remembered, many years ago, when I was in English Heritage, at the beginning when most of the staff were still civil servants, that many of the non-specialist staff had moved around from one department to another quite regularly. I think I remember being told when I was recruited via the Civil Service Commission that, going in as a junior manager, I’d be expected to move quite regularly and that this helped to ensure the neutrality and quality of work. I thought that my Civil Service colleagues just transferred into a department that would accept them if they hadn’t wanted to stay in the new QUANGO.
    But that was a long time ago, and maybe I imagined it. I also thought I remembered in the old days of printed staff directories that we had access to those in our controlling department at least – and access to the others via our library.
    I would have thought that it would reduce admin costs substantially across the whole of the Civil Service if HR and payroll didn’t have to deal with people sort of quitting and then starting again. But there are those expensive systems that won’t talk to each other…

  3. Sounds like a job for a *drumroll* personal data store. Disconnect from one Dept; connect to the next with all your identifiers, PAYE history etc. At the very least let’s have electronic P45s. Surprising you cant do email forwarding, cloud storage etc

    Seriously tho – I hope they give you a warm welcome back to Cabinet Office and best of luck at the heart of things.

  4. Elegantly written and thought-provoking, as your blog posts always are.

    I’m still amazed by the partisanship (small ‘p’) we have in the Civil Service; I don’t think I’ve ever taken a new role without someone, somewhere giving me a disapproving, ‘You’re going where?!’

    But there is work to be done all over, and I like your point that we could make it easier and more effective to pitch in.

    Regardless — good luck with the new role! And I’ll be keen to hear what you’re working on.

  5. Good luck. Is anybody trying to reduce the number of Departments of State from 22 to 11? Most countries even larger than us manage with fewer. Is the UK different? Would it reduce the cost of Government?

  6. It’s just occurred to me – how will I now be able to say ‘do you remember x in month y in year z and you won’t only remember but put your hands on the specific and relevant piece of data – has that archive been lost to us (I really mean me of course!)? #institutionalmemory

      1. Of course…I do need to do some housekeeping though as I’m creeping up the top ten for size of filestore and getting nice regular reminders on the subject ;-) But on the subject of institutional memory, something that’s always there as an issue but right now (not least where I am) it seems even more important as we move from ‘how it was’ to ‘how we are going to now deliver’ and not endlessly repeat. A common problem no doubt.

        1. Indeed – look out for the next blog post, which in a sense is all about the endless repetition

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