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Civil Service Capacity: Adapting to an Uncertain Future A Roundtable Discussion

Date:Tuesday, 10 June 2014
Venue:OLD.3.21, Time: 18.00-19.30

Chair: Tony Travers|, LSE.

Introduction: Helmut Anheier|, Hertie School of Governance), Martin Lodge|, LSE,
Kai Wegrich| Hertie School of Governance.

Discussants: Christopher Hood|, University of Oxford, Nick Pearce|,IPPR,
 Stephen Meek |,Department for Education, Sir Richard Mottram |,LSE.

What capacities are required of modern bureaucracies? In an age of austerity, climate change and ageing societies, the problem-solving capacities of modern states have come under serious challenge. What role can civil services play in dealing with these challenges, given debates about technical and managerial skills? How can demands for expertise be combined with demands for political responsiveness? How should an agenda to further civil service capacity be advanced? This Roundtable reflected on the kind of capacities that are required of bureaucracies, and how to strengthen them.

The Roundtable featured some of the findings presented in The Governance Report 2014 |(Oxford University Press). The two editors of this edition of the report, Martin Lodge and Kai Wegrich, argue that challenges regarding the problem-solving capacity of contemporary states need to consider the importance of the ‘administrative factor’. It is therefore puzzling that discussions about governance innovation pay so little attention to developing responses to the question as to what the actual execrations and demands on civil servants are to respond to demands of contemporary governance. Lodge and Wegrich argue that discussions needed to start with problems rather than solutions. Further, they suggest that administrative capacity can be differentiated into four key categories, namely regulatory, co-ordination, delivery and analytical capacities.

The Roundtable discussion focused on how administrative capacity could be developed in the context of austerity and other governance challenges. Nick Pearce argued that any discussion had to be viewed in the light of the changing context of political leadership. Sir Richard Mottram noted how the imperative of cost effectiveness was central to administrative capacity, namely how best to bear down on the cost of inputs to achieve outputs and outcomes. Stephen Meek discussed the challenges of developing further understandings of the ‘policy professional’ in Whitehall. Christopher Hood considered the challenges of the contemporary context of austerity and how this affected administrative capacity. As bureaucracy was seen as part of the problem, and not the solution, as spending cuts rarely emerged through a process of careful consideration and appreciation of legal complications, and as it required a degree of institutional memory, and a wider context which accepted a degree of ‘tax tolerance’, the contemporary setting for administrative capacities and loyalties was particularly stretching.

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