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Jenkin: We need a commission on the future of Whitehall
Thursday, 23 January 2014 15:34
On 22nd January, Bernard Jenkin MP (Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee) gave the following speech to the UCL Constitution Unit on accountability and leadership in 21st century Whitehall:

 

‘The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), which I chair, has spent most of its energy this parliament on looking at how Whitehall could work better.  I am not going to reprise that work in detail.  It is enough just to say that Accountability and Leadership emerge again and again as the key themes.  And let us start to define these terms.

 

 

‘In seeking accountability, this should not be a search for whom to blame when things go wrong.  Nor is it about forcing obedience to ministerial orders so that instructions are carried out more directly, or just making officials capable of buying widgets more efficiently.  Accountability should be about empowering people to carry out their tasks, and needs to be based upon a shared understanding of what the tasks are, how they are to be carried out and why those tasks are important, based on agreement about what will constitute a successful outcome.

 

‘And leadership is about building that shared understanding of objectives, of agreed plans, and of agreed ways, means and ends of government policy.  Focussing on the question of leadership is not to denigrate particular individuals, or ministers in general, or senior officials.  It is to focus on what Peter Hennessy, in his opening speech in the House of Lords last week called.....

 

‘“the governing marriage between temporary Ministers and permanent officials”.

 

‘Neither is leadership primarily about the formal power to decide things, like making appointments, or to give instructions, or to alter structures or organisation.  Nor is leadership about how much money you have, or your lack of money.

 

‘But so much of the discourse about the challenges in Whitehall focus on these things, because they are easier to grasp, rather than on the complex and subtle factors that make things go right or wrong.

 

‘Our two reports into strategic thinking in Whitehall - or the lack of it – exposed the tendency for the short-term and political to override the long-term and deeper strategic questions facing our country.  That makes leadership much more difficult, and tends to divorce those in the leadership whether ministers or officials from the accountability for outcomes.

 

‘Our report Change in Whitehall: the agenda for leadership highlighted how this government seeks to promote change, but that there are too few who can identify what exactly needs to be changed. Our call for a comprehensive change programme articulating clearly what the Civil Service is for and how it must change, with a timetable of clear milestones, was rebuffed.  There was a reluctance to produce what they saw as the latest in a long line of blueprints for reform initiatives in Whitehall.

 

‘That report also recommended the development of a new Haldane model of accountability which can sustain localism and decentralisation; or at least an explanation of how the existing model remains relevant. How should the new realities of devolving power out of Whitehall to local government and elsewhere be codified in the Civil Service governance structures, procedure and behaviour in the modern context?  Much has changed since 1919!

 

‘Above all, we recommended that the Cabinet Office take leadership of the reforms and coordinate the efforts in individual departments and across Whitehall as a whole.

 

‘We also assessed the merits of splitting the role of the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service.

 

‘Despite its rebuff of our recommendation, the government did subsequently produce the Civil Service Reform Plan and then the One Year On paper, and it is these that prompted our most important inquiry and report to date; Truth To Power: how civil service reform can succeed.

 

‘We published the results of our year-long inquiry on the future of the Civil Service, in September.  We have been building a deeper understanding of why things in the public sector tend to keep going wrong.  There are many good ideas in the Civil Service Reform Plan, but this programme is no more than a set of “incremental changes” which hardly address the question of what kind of overall leadership today’s Whitehall and our public services truly require.

 

‘Ideally, the government should address this by implementing our sole recommendation: that Parliament should establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to sit as a Commission on the future of the Civil Service.  Our proposal remains that this should be constituted so that it can report before the end of this Parliament with a comprehensive change programme for Whitehall and a timetable for this to be implemented over the lifetime of the next Parliament.

 

‘This call was reinforced by the unprecedented report of the Liaison Committee, which comprises the 33 Chairs of the Commons Select Committees, and yet still the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the senior Civil Service are united in resisting this call.  This represents something of an alliance of different and conflicting interests.  On the one hand, the Prime Minister said it would be a distraction from implementing policy.  On the other, one senses from within the Civil Service, there is a degree of denial about the failings in Whitehall.  There is a collective inability to see from within what Whitehall has become: less effective than it should be.

This is not to deny that our system of government is still one of the best in the world, but sadly it is no longer the best.  In some parts it is dire.  The question at the heart of all this is how best we should arrest the trend of decline.

 

‘Today’s Whitehall exhibits some of the key characteristics of a failing organisation, and this was made very clear to us in evidence from one of our witnesses, Professor Andrew Kakabadse.  He said three kinds of behaviour characterise a failing organisation, and I find this always raises wry smiles from audiences of civil servants.  Firstly, most people know the system is failing, but few inside the system feel able to talk about it, to try to resolve failures.  Second, there is usually a pattern, where meetings are held, very often to address things going wrong, and where things are agreed, but people leave the meeting and say or do something different.  Third, the leadership of a failing organisation are the last people to know that their organisation is failing.

 

‘We can also see and agree that, over recent decades, the culture of Whitehall has become more ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’), more driven by the news agenda where everything has to be presented as better than it really is, and things that go wrong are most often blamed individuals or previous governments, to avoid the need to address the real causes of failure.

 

‘The Liaison Committee took examples of recent failures as case studies when we cross-examined the Prime Minister in September.  This included the overcharging by G4S and Serco for electronic tagging, the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco, and the delays to Universal Credit, the problems with the UK Border Agency and the collapse of the flagship for defence procurement reform, the GoCo – which would be completely unnecessary if Lord Levene’s advice was heeded and the Treasury relaxed the restrictive terms and conditions for senior civil servants.

 

‘The reason the Liaison Committee supports an external review of Whitehall is that they were not convinced by the Prime Minister’s insistence that the fundamental challenges facing Whitehall can be addressed by a limited programme of incremental changes, implemented in the normal course of government.

 

‘Much government focus is on the failure to develop and retain skills and capabilities in such fields as implementation, procurement and project management, but behind this is another factor.  Ministers also complain about their decisions being blocked or unreasonably delayed by officials, even deliberately or dishonestly.

 

‘The real questions about this have not been asked or answered.  Why are ministers feeling blocked or frustrated?  If they are, why are officials feeling unable to carry out what ministers say they want?  What has happened to the way that ministers and officials used to understand each other?  Why has this understanding broken down?  If officials are actually failing to tell truth to power, or even to mislead, why are they doing this?  Nobody joins the Civil Service to behave in such a way.

 

‘Any productive working relationship depends upon what one of the Sunningdale papers refers to as “subtle understandings” – that is unspoken understandings – between the individuals concerned.  It is about trust, that information and knowledge shared is going to be used to help and support one another, not to undermine or to discredit.  In the highly charged and exposed atmosphere at the top of departments, faced with the sheer complexity of government, a high degree of trust must be more essential than ever.  This is a challenge at the best of times, because of the need to rely on those whom you have not chosen or appointed yourself. But in my conversations with ministers, and with senior officials, a high degree of trust is harder than ever to achieve.

 

‘As Lord Butler remarked in the Lords Debate last week, a symptom which indicates “that something is wrong ... in the relationship between civil servants and politicians ... is an unprecedented spate of recrimination against named civil servants through unattributable back stairs briefings.“

 

‘In such an atmosphere, how are ministers and officials meant to foster a shared vision for the direction of their departments?  It is at least understandable that where this atmosphere persists, officials would rather not take decisions or take responsibility, and therefore it is also inevitable that ministers should feel things are not being done, or are continuing to be done contrary to what they think they had made clear they wanted.

 

‘If we are to maintain the principle of a permanent and impartial Civil Service, answerable to but not appointed by the ministers they serve, then we must address how to strengthen the understanding between ministers, who are ultimately accountable to Parliament, and the officials upon whom they must rely to implement their policies.

 

‘Our report does not oppose the idea of fixed term appointments for Permanent Secretaries (in fact, five years would be a big improvement on the heavy churn at the top departments these days) or the idea of Enlarged Ministerial Offices.  In fact, I am rather attracted to EMOs, impressed by the evidence of how unsupported many ministers, particularly junior ministers, can feel.  However, it is hard to see how this, or the changes in procedures for appointing Permanent Secretaries, will address the issue of trust and understanding.  There is surely a danger that if ministers are encouraged to surround themselves with people who are directly appointed by, and answerable to, the minister, then the divide between him or her, and the rest of their officials, upon whom they still rely for the delivery of their policies, will be yet wider. The task of building trust and understanding would be made harder.

Yet building that trust and increasing engagement at all levels is what effective leadership is all about.

 

‘Along with the danger that ministers may also have more direct say over the appointment of permanent secretaries, there is also at least a risk that Whitehall is drifting inadvertently away from the Northcote Trevelyan settlement which has served so well for 160 years.  How could a new incoming government trust those whom the ministers of another party had personally appointed?  We would be moving towards an Australian system or even the American system, resulting in the clear out of top officials as well as advisers at the start of each new administration, with all the consequent loss of continuity and residual corporate knowledge which that involves.  If that is the right way for Whitehall to go, then we certainly require a Royal or Parliamentary Commission before we move in that direction.

 

‘But that is not the reason we will continue to press the case for a commission of some kind.  The reason why Whitehall needs this is because the governing marriage between ministers and officials, upon which so much of the stability of our constitution and government rests, can only be refreshed by experienced but detached examination and discussion, leading to deeper understanding and agreement about what is wrong and what needs to change.  Whitehall cannot do this for itself, any more than a warring couple can see how their behaviour reinforces the conflict in their relationship.  Only once there is that shared agreement about what factors increase the strain and lack of trust between ministers and officials can a plan be formulated to begin to put things right.

 

‘The One Year On plan is tantalising in one respect.  There is a new emphasis on addressing “culture and behaviours” in Whitehall and a commitment to developing a “long term vision”, but there is nothing to suggest how this might be achieved.

 

‘Addressing the relationship between ministers and officials will be primarily about seeking to learn new attitudes and behaviours, above anything else, and spreading that throughout the entire organisation.  Such change is the hardest to achieve, and takes years, but any other way, without a vision, without agreement amongst strong and united leadership which must include both ministers and officials, there will be little change and what change there is will either change nothing or take far longer.’

 
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