Whitehall focus Memoirs spark new gagging orders

25 May 06
Senior civil servants will shortly be asked to sign a confidentiality declaration and assign copyright to the Crown for information relating to their work, under plans to prevent the publication of sensitive Whitehall memoirs.

26 May 2006

Senior civil servants will shortly be asked to sign a confidentiality declaration and assign copyright to the Crown for information relating to their work, under plans to prevent the publication of sensitive Whitehall memoirs.

Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell last week became the first civil servant to sign an amended version of the civil service management code.

This makes the disclosure of sensitive information relating to the conduct of Whitehall business difficult without government or Cabinet Office consent.

O'Donnell acted amid growing concern about memoirs, such as those published by Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK's former ambassador to the United States, which revealed details of the UK's discussions with its international allies before the war in Iraq.

Ministers, O'Donnell and other senior Whitehall staff were also unhappy about the serialisation of Meyer's memoirs, which contained personal comments about ministers, in a national newspaper.

One senior Whitehall source this week told Public Finance: 'There was a feeling that the Cabinet Office had to act to prevent further indiscreet tale-telling and personalised tittle-tattle.'

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said discussions were continuing about which civil servants would be required to sign the declaration. One flexible option would be to allow departmental permanent secretaries to decide which staff below the highest grades should be asked to sign the agreement.

But Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA senior civil service union, speaking to Public Finance, said: 'The mutuality issue is important here: we're concerned about breaches of confidentiality, but civil servants also need assurances from politicians and advisers that memoirs will not expose civil servants to undue criticism.'

Prison Service hopes to provide support services to others

The head of the Prison Service's shared services team has indicated that Whitehall departments could soon outsource responsibility for back-office functions to his unit.

Steve Hodgson told Public Finance that there had been improvements in the organisation's procurement practices since a critical National Audit Office report in 2003. These had put him in a position to look for central government partners seeking to make efficiency savings by pooling resources.

'It would take some organising, but I think the Prison Service could soon go beyond improvements in its own human resources, finance and procurement functions and move into support services for other public bodies. We could, I firmly believe, soon provide services for central government departments,' Hodgson told PF.

Such a move would reflect a swift improvement in the service's procurement performance. The Office of Government Commerce, a Treasury offshoot, has encouraged public bodies to create large procurement centres to institutionalise a 'critical mass' of savings.

But the NAO study three years ago highlighted a glaring need to reduce rising administrative costs associated with prison procurement. Auditors identified a bloated system that involved around 130 bodies purchasing almost identical goods.

Hodgson has since overseen the 'Phoenix' programme, which has produced annual savings of around £32m.

Hodgson acknowledged that the programme 'came at a cost' – around 1,200 jobs will eventually be cut as a consequence – but said the service had no choice but to axe posts as the government's all-encompassing Gershon efficiency programme took hold.

'That required employment savings across all public bodies. But HMPS has now developed specific procurement skills sets, that other public bodies lack and could be of wider use to the sector.'

Call to plug skill gaps

Specialist civil servants have urged departments to publish plans for rectifying skills gaps that could prevent progression under the new Professional Skills for Government training programme.

Civil servants such as lawyers are unhappy that proposed assessments under the PSG, which requires staff to develop several areas of expertise and retain specialisms to progress to the highest grades, have failed to reflect their current skill sets.

Tax lawyers and statisticians, for example, believe that the requirement for policy development and implementation skills could hinder their progression.

The Cabinet Office is aware of the impact on specialists and has asked all departments to produce plans to plug any skills gaps that emerge.

But many departments have failed to do so, despite plans to tie workforce progression to the PSG from 2007/08. Val Bremner, who works at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, said: 'The reason we are concerned is there is a two-year moratorium. If after that you have not got the requisite skills, you will not progress because you will not be considered “PSG-skilled”.'


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