Whitehall: how to have a good inquiry

9 Sep 13

The PASC has called for a new parliamentary commission on the future of the civil service. But a fresh inquiry will only be justified if it focuses on the nuts and bolts of how to make Whitehall effective

Inquiry blight is a real danger. But, as the latest report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Truth to power: how civil service reform can succeed, argues, there is a lot wrong now and there are a wide range of questions about the future of Whitehall going well beyond existing proposals which should be examined afresh.

Thinking needs to be more radical. It will be hard for Whitehall to brush aside the PASC’s call for a Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service since Bernard Jenkin, the PASC chairman, has already secured the backing of the Liaison Committee, of all select committee chairs, for the proposal.

And David Cameron will have to come up with a position by tomorrow afternoon, when civil service reform will be one of the two main topics when he is questioned by the Liaison Committee.

The main constitutional questions have already been thoroughly examined in various reports by the PASC, by the Constitution Committee of the Lords, and the government-commissioned report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (unfairly criticised by PASC).

These reports have only looked at some of the main issues. There are important questions about ministers and civil servants and it is wrong to look at either in isolation since most policy/implementation failures involve both. The need now, however, is to focus on the underlying effectiveness of government.

Big changes, and cutbacks, have already occurred across the main departments, as our new Whitehall Monitor 2013 points out, and more far-reaching measures will have to be introduced in the next parliament. This raises big questions about how Whitehall operates and services are delivered, about the shape of departments and the accountability of ministers and civil servants (as discussed in recent Institute for Government briefing papers).

Should Whitehall move from the long-established federal structure to a more unified one, as, for example, Lord Browne, the government’s lead non-executive director, has argued? Should ministers be allowed to appoint a tier of executives as the London Mayor can, and as some Conservative MPs have urged?

These long-term issues about the future of Whitehall are being examined internally but they need to be debated externally, as we will be doing at the IfG over the next few months.

The PASC report makes a strong case for a Parliamentary Commission on the model of the recent Banking Commission, a special joint committee of MPs and peers. Parliament should be involved in some way since any changes require political as well as broader public support.

But there are the alternative models of the Turner, Dilnot and Browne commissions on pensions, elderly care and financing higher education which have worked in the past.

There are three main ways to make a parliamentary inquiry useful:

• First, the inquiry should be chaired by an independent figure with experience of government and large organisations rather than by someone from the two main Whitehall tribes of former ministers or permanent secretaries who would be seen as having vested interests and opinions. Former ministers and civil servants should be on an inquiry but not as the chair.

• Second, the terms of reference need to focus on the big questions of how Whitehall operates and the delivery of services and specifically on the post-2015 situation, rather than current controversies. But there needs to be a deadline of reporting by, say, autumn 2014 if there is to be an impact on political, civil service and wider thinking about post-2015 changes.

• Third, the inquiry should seek to establish a broad base of support, not only between ministers and civil servants, but also more widely outside Whitehall, with local government, the rest of the public sector, business, unions, academia and, above all, among the public, as Lord (Adair) Turner did successfully on pensions and as Sir Howard Davies is now seeking to do on London airport capacity. This involves getting evidence as opposed to just collecting opinions.

We are going to have a debate on the future of Whitehall. There is now a chance to get it right.

This article first appeared on the Institute for Government website

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