Thats no way to act, by Sir Michael Bichard

4 Aug 05
The civil service does need urgent reform to bring it into line with other parts of the public sector, argues Sir Michael Bichard. But legislation is not the answer

05 August 2005

The civil service does need urgent reform to bring it into line with other parts of the public sector, argues Sir Michael Bichard. But legislation is not the answer

The prime minister has repeatedly stressed his commitment to major reform in the public services. In a speech at St Thomas' Hospital in June last year, he laid it on the line: 'Now is the time to recast the 1945 welfare state, to end entirely the era of one-size-fits-all services… now is the time to put an entirely different dynamic in place to drive all public services:  one where the service will be driven not by the manager but by the user – the patient, the parent, the pupil, the law- abiding citizen.'

This is not an agenda for changing public services that is concerned primarily with reducing costs, nor is it an agenda that will be met through managerial improvements. It is a vision for transforming public services to deliver social justice – and we are currently falling a long way short of achieving it. The reasons for this are various.

They include the lack of a coherent strategy; the failure to provide opportunities for private sector involvement in frontline services; a reluctance on the part of government to engage fully with the voluntary sector; the lack of a service design capacity in the public sector; and a failure to realise the potential of IT for service improvement by ensuring that it is business-led.

But perhaps as damaging as any of these is the failure to reform the civil service. The service is hugely powerful. It legislates, regulates, sets targets, intervenes (or not), controls much that happens in the private as well as the public sector, facilitates (or can do so) and designs policies, procedures, processes and systems. It should be the powerhouse of reform. But, in spite of much apparent activity, it is not. So what needs to change?

Looking forward, we need a service that is:
· comfortable with greater external accountability and transparency
· genuinely committed to personal accountability in its ranks
· creative, innovative and energised
· effectively delivering results and outcomes
· skilled in procurement and supplier management
· politically aware, sensitive, empathetic, astute but not aligned
· explicitly focused on issues rather than departments, on clients rather than process and on value rather than cost
· imaginative in its use of e-government to deliver services and enhance what the think-tank Demos calls 'everyday democracy'.

There are a number of things we can do to achieve all this. We can enhance external accountability by reforming the National Audit Office in two ways: making it focus more systematically on the quality of performance management and policy development and making it more independent of departments (no longer, for example, having to negotiate the terms of its reports with departments).

We should also introduce a system of Comprehensive Performance Assessments for departments. These should be undertaken by a thoroughly independent body such as the Audit Commission, and coupled with the transparent independent measurement of performance against targets (to include Gershon savings).

These reforms would, of course, have implications for ministers – perhaps holding them more publicly accountable for policy and delivery. However, the process could be designed and managed in a way that did not unreasonably expose ministers. Even if it did increase their accountability to some extent, maybe that would be no bad thing, given the public's current mood.

Another crucial reform would be to establish a public rather than a civil service, with integrated training and development. This would mean that all those employed to provide public services would be in the one system, from where pool staff could be routinely recruited, promoted and transferred. The term 'civil' service was in fact introduced to distinguish it from the military, so in that sense it may have served its purpose. More interestingly, at the time of devolution the decision to retain a unified civil service was justified on the grounds that it would enhance mobility. My argument is that a unified public service would do the same.

To increase the personal accountability of senior civil servants, the definition of 'accounting officers' should be extended below the rank of permanent secretary. Also, all civil (public) servants should be required to serve some time in operation/management posts before even being considered for senior jobs.

More policy development and analysis should be outsourced to break the monopoly currently enjoyed by the service. Many excellent policy initiatives have been conceived outside the service in recent years – so let's look at how we could further develop and involve alternative policy providers more formally in the process.

Select committees also need a shake-up to enhance their role in holding officials to account. This could be done, for example, by increasing the support available to them and giving them the power to use NAO and Public Accounts Committee reports to examine civil servant witnesses.

But most important of all is the introduction of some degree of external accountability to provide the same stimulus for change as it has provided in other parts of the public service. In truth, the debate should be focused around these issues of reform rather than the need for some kind of Civil Service Act.

The current risk to the civil service is not a threat to its integrity and impartiality posed by ministers and special advisers, but rather a threat to its relevance and reputation.

In that sense, a Civil Service Act in the form proposed misses the point. To place the Civil Service Commission on a statutory basis and publish annual reports detailing the number of special advisers will do little to protect the integrity of the service. Certainly, as Sir Andrew Turnbull said in his final speech as Cabinet secretary, it would do nothing to address what the public administration select committee referred to as 'these unfortunate events' (the Jo Moore 'bury bad news' e-mail at the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on September 11, 2001).

What the Act would do is to provide ammunition for those who want to preserve the civil service in its current unreformed state. It would provide a rallying point for all those who, for often very different reasons, regard the status quo as preferable to any of the alternatives. And in that sense it would do the service great damage, because it could leave it exposed in a decade from now to much more radical and dangerous proposals for reform.

Turnbull also referred in his speech to the Committee on Standards in Public Life's 'thinly disguised hostility' to special advisers. He could have levelled that same criticism at many others. Indeed, it seems that some – including the media – have become obsessed with this small band.

In my time at the Department for Education and Employment, the quality of the special advisers – Conor Ryan, Nick Pearce, Tom Bentley et al – played a key part in the success of the department. That was because advisers and civil servants respected each other's different roles and because advisers respected the principles now articulated in the Special Advisers Code.

It is frankly laughable to suggest that this small cohort of special advisers is a threat to the integrity and values of the service. In fact, I would argue for more rather than fewer in the future – not least because in some important respects they protect the service from involving itself in party political activity. The service should be mature enough to operate alongside special advisers and not resort to legislation to protect its position. And, of course, in many departments that is exactly what has been happening.

The real tragedy, however, is that these high-profile but relatively marginal issues have been allowed to distract attention from the urgent need for fundamental reform of so much else in the civil service. Sometimes it has all the makings of a classic episode of Yes, Minister.

Sir Michael Bichard is rector of the University of the Arts, London.  He was permanent secretary of the then Department for Education and Employment from 1995 to 2001