Civil-service reform: Modernising the mandarins

THE senior civil servants huddled in an Oxford seminar room are some of the most discreetly influential people in Britain. Known as “mandarins” (a tribute to imperial China’s rigorous hierarchies), they oversee costly projects ranging from HS2, a planned high-speed railway, to procuring aircraft carriers and a sensitive nuclear-energy deal with (post-imperial) Beijing. When such a project goes awry it costs a fortune and damages politicians’ standing. So governments across the rich world, as well as some in developing countries, are striving to reshape their public services from ponderous bureaucracies into something nimbler and less blunder-prone.The seminar is run by the Saïd Business School and the Major Projects Authority (MPA), an agency set up by Britain’s governing coalition in 2011. Senior businessfolk are invited to lead discussions; officials share gripes with visiting permanent secretaries (the ministries’ top brass). The MPA’s boss, John Manzoni, a bullish former oil executive, wants to import skills more common in the private sector, such as managing risk, learning from competitors and improving supply chains. He is also trying to build expertise in…

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