Whitehall woes revisited

27 Apr 12
Colin Talbot

The Jeremy Hunt debacle raises again the issue of Whitehall reform. Our reputedly ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service actually has deep flaws in its institutional make-up and needs to be modernised

This week saw an extraordinary outburst from the most recently retired head of the civil service, Lord Gus O’Donnell. He said, on the BBC: ‘When governments go through difficult patches you are looking for who you can blame. The issue comes up of “well, let’s try and blame the civil service”. It does not usually work and I don’t think it will work this time either.’

Now I am not one of those who would blame the government’s current ills on the civil service, or at any rate not entirely. Most of what has happened to them has been because of crass and rushed policy-making on the hoof, without proper thought and analysis. Certainly, sometimes civil servants have failed to say ‘no, minister’ when they should have, but ministers have only themselves to blame when things go wrong. Ministers who allow official or unofficial advisers to run amok, as in Defence or now DCMS, can hardly blame the civil service for not stopping them (even if the CS should have).

But that does not exonerate the civil service. I have been saying for years that our supposedly ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has deep flaws in its institutional make-up.

The civil service has four essential roles, which provide a useful template for thinking about what they are good, and bad, at:

  • Counsellors: advising the elected government on which policy options to choose, what evidence exists, and how best to turn policies into practical realities. It does not mean, as some senior mandarins now seem to think, doing whatever a minister wants.
  • Conservators: defending the rule of law, constitutionality, and probity in the administration of public services and policy-making, including when necessary saying ‘no, minister’.
  • Chief Executives: actually running, in a non-partisan way, those services that are (for whatever reason) actually run by the civil service, such as tax collection, benefits payments, or prisons.
  • Cooperators: with the 90% of the UK public services that are not part of Whitehall, including devolved and local government, to ensure ‘joined-up’ public services.

The recent crises have tended to involved instances where mandarins should have acted as Conservators and didn’t – the Liam Fox-Adam Werritty affair (Defence) and now the Jeremy Hunt-Adam Smith (Culture, Media and Sport) scandal. Or the many cases where civil servants as Counsellors should have said ‘are you sure, minister?’ – and sought a formal ministerial direction – before going ahead (the list of these cock-ups is too long to detail).

The civil service, especially the senior ‘mandarinate’, which has little or no experience of actually running the local public services that make up the bulk of UK public activities, is also especially poor at working with other public servants. This often leads to ‘failures of implementation’. Actually, these are usually failures of policy – in the sense that any good policy formulation process would have identified the potential elephant traps before going ahead.

But the culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’ is ingrained in the civil service, and the oft-repeated claims that we have a ‘Rolls Royce’ seervice that is the envy of the world simply reinforces this sense of superiority. This is replicated inside Whitehall, with the Treasury seeing itself as inherently superior to everyone else and suffering from a massive ‘not invented here’ sense of hubris.

Despite recent improvements in recruitment, the top 3-5,000 civil servants are still dominated by the culture of public school and Oxbridge educated ‘Fast Streamers’, with little experience or advanced training. Intelligent they certainly are, good at understanding ‘implementation’ they certainly are not.

Does that matter if ‘those that can, do policy, those that can’t, run services’? It matters because you cannot do good policy without a good understanding of ‘doing’ implementation.

So what is needed? In no particular order, and by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of my priorities would be:

1) A thorough review of what public services actually need to be delivered through national structures. For example, tax collection does not have to be through a single national agency, likewise prisons or job centres. In all three cases other countries have localised versions of these. Having, for example, a regionalised or even localised tax agency would allow for more innovation and experimentation, whilst maintaining national rules.

2) The Treasury should be divided into a Finance Ministry and an Economics Ministry (maybe the latter merged with BIS). The Finance Ministry should be much more clearly subordinate to the Prime Minister’s office, rather then being treated as an equal or even superior body.

3) A Prime Minister’s Department is needed, with substantial policy analysis and implementation follow-up capability and a strong coordinating role, including setting spending and legislative priorities and evaluating progress.

4) Entry to the Senior Civil Service should require two ‘hygiene’ factors: a suitable higher qualification (Masters or PhD) and direct and substantial experience (at least 12 months) of managing front-line public services outside of the Whitehall environment (e.g. local government, health, policing, etc). There should also be more direct entry into all parts of the civil service from other public services.

5) A fundamental change in the accountability of civil servants, opening them up to much greater scrutiny by Parliament. A new set of rules are needed detailing when civil servants are accountable to Parliament for (a) the policy advice that they give and (b) the discharge of their management duties for the implementation of policy.

6) This would entail a significant allocation of resources to Parliament and maybe a change to the mandate and role of the National Audit Office to formally give it a role in supporting all Parliamentary scrutiny committees on both financial and ‘value for money’ issues.

7) Opening up of the public finance process by having draft Budgets (and Spending Reviews) published as White Papers and making the authorisation process through Parliament much more open to debate, including involving the sectoral Select Committees. This should include the creation of a Parliamentary Budget Office, subsuming the Office of Budget Responsibility, to provide truly independent and non-partisan analysis of spending plans (similar to the Congressional Budget Office in Washington).

These are just a few ideas, but what is certainly needed is a fresh approach.

This blog first appeared on Whitehall Watch

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