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We need new ideas about what a 21st century civil service is for

This post is by Dame Fiona Reynolds, chair of the management board of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

The last few years have seen unprecedented challenges for modern governments, not least in the UK.  Pressures like Covid-19 (the first modern pandemic) and Brexit (disentangling sixty years of ever closer integration with the European Union), plus the growing realisation that we are not well set up to deal effectively with complex, cross cutting long term challenges like the climate and nature crises, have exposed cracks in even the best run administrations. 

Sometimes it seems that our civil service has been stretched as never before with the strain of responding to these meta challenges. Although well endowed with values, including integrity, public service, openness and independence, it is still structured – as it has been since the Haldane reforms of 1918 – largely around functional activities, creating a well ordered system but one that inevitably risks operating in silos.

There have been repeated attempts at ‘joined up government’, initiatives to bring in new and different skills, and multiple approaches to training and personal development.  But have these been enough to make a difference?

A new £5,000 prize for ideas
The Cambridge Bennett Institute for Public Policy is running a competition with Prospect magazine, inviting early career academics and professionals to submit ideas of what a modern civil service is for and how it should address the needs and challenges of the modern world. We want submissions as a 2,500 word essay or a short film of no more than ten minutes.  It is a chance to win a £5,000 prize and contribute to one of the most interesting debates of our time.

For an entry form and more details about eligibility and how to apply go to The deadline is 31 March 2022.

The prize judges will be Dame Fiona Reynolds, former cabinet secretaries Lord Gus O’Donnell and Lord Richard Wilson, Prospect editor Alan Rusbridger and co-directors of the Bennett Institute, Professor Diane Coyle and Professor Dennis C. Grube.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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