Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 152 - 159)




  152. Good afternoon to you both, Professor Bogdanor and Kate Jenkins. Do I understand that you do not want to say anything to us before we start?
  (Kate Jenkins) Certainly I am perfectly happy to wait and see which subjects you want to explore.

  153. We shall do it, if we may, as a kind of conversation to see which territory we get in. The purpose of the sessions that we are running at the moment is to try and identify some of the key issues in the whole modernising government and Civil Service reform agenda. We may move between some of these issues and if you have something to say about them we would very much like to hear it. Perhaps I could start with Vernon Bogdanor. I read with interest the paper that you gave us on Civil Service reform which, if I read it right, is extremely critical of much of the current thinking about what we might do to the Civil Service. You say, first of all, that there is what you call a fundamental contradiction between current proposals for Civil Service reform and the idea of joined-up or holistic government. I wonder what you mean by that?
  (Professor Bogdanor) The idea of holistic government, as I understand it, Chairman, implies shared responsibility, across different government departments and between central government and local government and local agencies. Many of these ideas of Civil Service reform, however, derive from the so-called new public management, which stresses the idea of individual responsibility, of bringing in individual accountability of the Civil Service. It seems to me that a civil servant is in any case much less individually accountable than somebody in another profession such as, for example, a doctor or an accountant. Much of his or her work is shared with people in his or her department and perhaps across departments. With joined-up government, it seems to me that is even more so. We are talking about interdependence and it is extremely difficult to disentangle individual contributions. The danger of trying to do so is that it may tempt officials to do things you do not want them to do, namely to pass difficult problems across to other departments or agencies. That, in the nub, is why I think there is a deep-seated contradiction between the idea of holistic government and the idea of bringing in management incentives into the Civil Service.

  154. Kate Jenkins, do you agree or disagree with that?
  (Kate Jenkins) I do not think that I could quite say that I either disagree or agree. I would just like to take it one step further. What Professor Bogdanor is so good at doing is pointing out the flaws in some of the ideas a lot of us have about government. What one has to recognise in trying to improve the way in which as large and complicated and in many ways messy an institution as the public service is, is that you have to try a lot of different things. There are not simple, black and white verities of the kind that constitutional theory would suppose. While I can see the force of the argument which says if you are going to have joined-up government you have to be prepared to work in the slightly trying language of the management consultants; you have to be prepared to work in teams and to share things, of course, and people have been doing that for a very long time. I do not think there is necessarily anything new or magic about joined-up government that is necessarily clearly opposed to any other form of managing government. It is when you get down to the specifics and the detail that you can begin to pick out where things might not work, where things might work better, where it is worth challenging and asking questions. This is where I tend to take issue with those who are observing what is happening rather than those who are a part of the process of what is happening. The process of changing a large institution is messy and uncomfortable and you get things right and you get things wrong. You have to be prepared to keep trying. What is interesting about this particular example is that I suspect, where one can have effective cross-cutting issues, where you can start moving across departmental boundaries, you can begin to deal with some of the absurdities that have been around for a very long time which have been imposed by government policy. The classic one that I can remember dealing with 20 years ago, which is still a problem, is the services for children aged under five, which used to be the preserve of three or four different departments, all of whom dealt with them severally and in their own separate ways. That does not make sense. The more one can move towards the provision of client focused services, the better because that is better for the people who are paying to have these services provided. It is down to the rest of us to find the internal, managerial solutions that make these improvements possible and not to get terribly hung up on short term issues of constitutional propriety. I say that with great care and great caution because, while one is trying and testing new ways of improving the quality of government services, one can afford to be fairly cavalier, but one then has to be prepared to look very hard at the longer term and the serious constitutional implications of what is being done. At this stage, when there are a lot of new things being tried, I would be prepared to take a few risks.

  155. You are a "can do" person, are you not? Vernon is a "steady on" person but you are a "let's get in there and sort the system out" kind of person. Is there really a conflict between "can do" people and the Civil Service values that Vernon holds dear?
  (Professor Bogdanor) With great respect, I would like to reject the description of myself as being a "steady on" person. I am a "can do" person as well, in that I want these exercises in holistic government to succeed. Indeed, I do not believe that our society will progress unless they do succeed in dealing with problems such as, for example, social exclusion. One has to bear in mind, as Kate Jenkins has said, that holistic government is not a new idea. It has been tried a number of times before but the previous attempts have failed. One can single out perhaps the Joint Approach to Social Policy of the Callaghan government which really did not get very far. This government is making a full frontal attack on very difficult and intractable social problems. I hope it succeeds. From that point of view, I am a "can do" person. What I do believe is that we need to think of these reforms in a certain context. They do have implications for the way the Civil Service works, the way that local government works and the way that local agencies work and also for central/local relations. But, I feel that the government has not fully thought through the implications of holistic government. You cannot just establish a few units and task forces at Number 10. That has been tried before. It does not work. Holistic government has very radical implications and there is a sense in which perhaps I am more radical and "can do" than Kate Jenkins because I want these implications to be confronted. I do not think you can continue with traditional answers to what are yesterday's questions about managing the Civil Service if we are really serious about this new approach, which I certainly am.

  156. I apologise for setting out what I thought would be a useful antithesis. When you hear and read all the stuff now about joined-up and cross cutting and the rest of it, is your reaction to say, "Oh God, not again, not another bout of this stuff that we have had for 30-odd years" or to feel that this time it might just be different?
  (Kate Jenkins) If I am being entirely honest, my immediate reaction is of course, "Oh God, not again. We have tried all this." Then I have to remind myself that 20 years ago I was listening to people in their fifties who were saying, "Oh God, we have tried all this before." What I think is really interesting this time round is that both in the modernising government White Paper and in Sir Richard Wilson's report people have tried to put together a lot of things that are happening across the whole of Whitehall. What used to happen was that you would get a paper about one thing. It would be about recruitment or pensions policy or agencies. The extent to which it is now possible to put things together in a coherent form like this is a thoroughly good move and I think is to be commended, but that is about the presentation. I hope to some extent it reflects the thinking. The test, as Vernon quite rightly says, is what is going to happen now. I would entirely agree with him. These are really exceptionally difficult and intractable issues, not because we cannot all see what the outcome is that we would like to see at the end of the day, because I suspect most people would sign up to a lot of what is in the modernising government book; it is all good, solid common sense, in a way; but the process of persuading a large organisation to behave in a different way is very complex. Again, to the credit of the present administration, they have tried in those four booklets that were produced for the Sunningdale conference of permanent secretaries to do that. They have tried to begin to explain how they are going to do it. Again, those of us who now sit on the outside need to be quite careful not just to shoot the whole thing down in flames, which is a temptation, but to say, "Fine. If those are the words and that is the terminology that you find helpful to make this change happen, we have to accept it", because, for all of us, what really matters is what happens at the end of the day. That is the point at which the external scrutiny role is really important, not to argue about whether visions, missions and values are useful or not but to say, "All right. Is what is actually happening in the public service demonstrating that things are getting better?" To focus there, which is the focus of the White Paper but is not the focus of the Civil Service management reforms, because the Civil Service management reforms are all about what is going to happen inside the Civil Service and, for the rest of us, what is important is what is going to happen to all of us externally at the end of this process. That is where I would watch it to see what happens.
  (Professor Bogdanor) In reply to your comment about this all happening before, there is an important difference this time, in my opinion, in the greater political leadership that is coming from Number 10 Downing Street and the attempt to combat departmentalism, which I think has been a weakness of the British government for very many years. We have seen a gradual alteration in the role of Number 10 Downing Street and in the role of the Cabinet Office which it is of course also part of this Committee's remit to look at. It does seem to me that one has to alter the culture both of ministers, who should no longer be judged primarily on what they secure for their departments but on how successful they are in dealing with these difficult problems, and also civil servants, as to what they can contribute to the whole. It is because I think all this has implications for the Civil Service that I was so critical of the proposals for Civil Service reform which seem to me to cut across what the government is trying to do.

  157. Can I return to Vernon and one of your central charges here? If I can quote from your memorandum to us, you say, "There can, in the last resort, be no real analogy between the Civil Service and private management, for there is no real analogy in the private sector to the central constitutional principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament." Are you really saying that that principle stands inflexibly against a range of changes, including private sector management techniques that public services might need?
  (Professor Bogdanor) I believe that the principle prevents some of the attempts at risk taking which are suggested in the Civil Service reform proposals. I believe it limits the extent to which one can bring outsiders into the Civil Service. The culture of the Civil Service is quite different from that of private management because business has concrete and often enforceable obligations against customers, shareholders, creditors and the like. Government has multiple and interdependent obligations which are not in general legally enforceable and ministers are regularly questioned in Parliament where they have to defend their policies in great detail. There is no analogy with a private company. I believe it is also worth repeating, as I wrote in my submission, that there is great misunderstanding amongst many people involved in the Civil Service reform as to what the practices of private management actually are. I referred to the Oughton Report of 1993, the career management and succession study, which showed that many large corporations operate as the traditional civil service operated. They do not recruit many outsiders. They, in general, promote from within. They do not offer short, fixed term contracts, for the very important reason that they think it is crucial to preserve the morale of people working for them in the company. I think that is a crucial consideration with regard to the Civil Service also.
  (Kate Jenkins) Vernon and I may possibly be coming to much the same point from a different route. I would argue very strongly that running a large organisation with defined outcomes is quite similar whether it is a public or a private sector one because the vast majority of what most people in that institution will do should be quite simply using their resources to achieve the best outcomes in the most effective way. That is not going to be very different. Indeed, when I have gone into large, private sector companies, I am constantly surprised by how similar they feel, as you were saying, to large, public sector institutions as well. The difference I think is—I hesitate to use the words "at the margin"—at the top, because none of us has got sufficiently deeply into what the serious issues of accountability in a modern state are. I think it is a gap that is well worth the Committee thinking about quite hard. I would disagree with Vernon that ministers are subjected to detailed and exhaustive cross-examination about what goes on in their departments. I think they are occasionally embarrassed when instances occur which become public. That is a different form of accountability than being genuinely held accountable for the detail, or even the substance, of what goes on within their departments. The issue of accountability to a shareholders' meeting or to Parliament is different. I would also argue that running any public sector organisation is more complex than running almost any private sector organisation because, as Vernon rightly points out, there is a range of different interest groups, issues and politics and policies which have to be balanced, which are very difficult indeed to handle. That said, I would still maintain that both the public and the private sector have a great deal to learn from each other and to argue that running these large organisations should be done within an enclosed balloon which says "Public or private sector only" I think is to risk missing a lot that both sides can and have already learned from each other.

Mr McFall

  158. Professor, you made the point that the case for further change is not proven. That is a verdict in Scottish law which I think is unsatisfactory and I think it is unsatisfactory in your pamphlet here. I think either there is a case for change or there is not a case for change. I take the point that Kate makes about running any public sector organisation being more complex than private. To take an example, the Health Service quangos. As a Member of Parliament, I have worked with the Health Service. Private sector individuals come in and they get increasingly frustrated. You have to say, "Look, this is a different environment. It is a different climate. Take it easy. Decisions will not be made tomorrow. They will take quite a time." If they overcome that barrier, they can then see the worth of working within that sector and the aims, objectives, evaluations and delivery are the same in the public sector as they are in the private sector. I think you made the point, Professor, that the two cultures have not meshed but have remained distinct. I think there is a case for change to ensure that this notion of two cultures is eliminated and we get down to issues like delivery. From what I can gather from what the Prime Minister said down on the floor of the House, just before I came up here, about the Health Service and elsewhere, this is all about delivery. If we want to deliver as a government on social exclusion, we have to look at health, education, poverty and businesses and residents' associations and the community. That is holistic as far as I am concerned. How can you mesh that public and private sector? I would ask for your views on that as well as the views of both witnesses regarding their experience in the public and private sectors and where they see hopes for the future.
  (Professor Bogdanor) I completely accept what you say about the need for cooperation between public and private bodies if these deep-seated social problems are to be tackled. This seems to me undoubtedly correct. If one is trying to learn lessons from the operation of large corporations, one would say there should not be very much further change in the Civil Service because large corporations do operate, in their recruitment policies and so on, in a very similar manner to the Civil Service. That was misunderstood because many people, in thinking of the private sector, were thinking perhaps of the financial sector rather than large corporations and the financial sector does operate in a different way. One needs to make that distinction. If you are looking at firms such as BP or Unilever, they do not operate very differently from the Civil Service in their recruitment and career planning policy. I think it is also worth saying that the experience of performance related pay, which is advocated in some of the proposals for Civil Service reform, has not been, to put it mildly, an unqualified success in the private sector. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the way the private sector works. We all have an image in our mind as to how it works and obviously the more we know and the greater degree of communication the better. I hope I did not seem to argue against that. No one of any sense would, I hope, argue against that. As you say, Mr McFall, there has to be much more cooperation between the public and private sector if we are to deal with these very difficult problems.
  (Kate Jenkins) I would like to pick up three points there. The first issue about whether there is a need for change is a very important one. It is important in regard to the public service generally. I have been conscious of it in the last couple of days in relation to the NHS. I think there is a tendency to talk as though what these large organisations need is a huge step change regularly. They need reform. They need a changed management programme. That is demoralising for the people working in them and is sometimes rather misleading about what the objectives really are. A lot of the proposals in Richard Wilson's paper in particular have been things that have been government policy, as we all know, for a very long time. We are really looking at a determined effort at improvement and an attempt to give the process of improving the way an organisation works a kick every so often. That seems to me entirely sensible because most organisations need to be looking at how they can improve themselves as a matter of course and occasionally they need a nudge or a kick to do it a bit faster or a bit more radically. I think it is arguable that most of these institutions have had too much of that in the last 20 years and can do with a general movement forward and a sense themselves that they are improving. I assume that is the thinking behind the approach that this administration is taking to Civil Service reform, which seems to me to be very much emphasising ideas and views that have been around for quite a long time, and for which I think it is fair to say the Civil Service has really failed. You have only to look, for example, at their paper on diversity. That really reflects trying to introduce things which have been government policy to my certain knowledge for at least 20 years. The interesting question there I think is probably why so little has happened up to now, rather than what ought to be done about it, because there is a lot of literature on how to introduce greater diversity into institutions. The interesting question is why an institution has failed to do that in the past, even though it has been a recognised policy. Pulling all that together, I would say this is about the general improvement of an institution. I would argue that government particularly, as an institution, should be extremely conscious of what is happening in the economic and social environment around it and does need to be very responsive, probably now more responsive than ever before, to those changes which are taking place. I can remember in my relatively early youth, in the Department of Employment, observing that while the services sector in Britain was booming in the late 1970s the Department of Employment had I think one principal working on the services sector and something like seven or eight assistant secretaries working on the rapidly declining heavy engineering and manufacturing sectors. That kind of slowness of response I hope we are beginning to move away from. It is that sort of thing that I think we should be looking to. You quoted the Prime Minister saying, "It is all about delivery". He is quite right that the provision of government services is all about delivery, but this is where Vernon's warnings are very important. The provision of government services is all about delivery. Probably a lot of the development of policy is about outcomes and we need to think much more in terms of outcomes, but that does not remove the constitutional issues which, as I referred to earlier, we still need to be very much clearer about; the role and the effectiveness of accountability and external scrutiny; the constitutional position of the Civil Service. I have been looking with care through these documents to see a formal statement of what the role of the Civil Service is. I do not think we have that yet. These are the issues which Professor Bogdanor is rightly concerned about, which I would argue are a very important part of this total picture and perhaps, in many ways, the most difficult part to get to grips with. That may well be why we have none of us quite got to grips with it yet, but they do need to be taken seriously.

Mr Lepper

  159. You have both this afternoon referred in different ways to what you perceive to be a determination on the part of the current government to do certain things, change certain things, press ahead perhaps, with implementing ideas that have been around for a long time and have not got very far in the past. Professor Bogdanor, you in particular referred to this sense of determination emanating from Number 10 Downing Street. I would be interested in knowing what both of you feel about where constitutionally the driving force should be. I am thinking about the role of the Cabinet Office and the role of Number 10 Downing Street, having described the sense of determination that is there, and whether there should perhaps be central changes made, if necessary, to see that that sense of determination makes headway.
  (Professor Bogdanor) This is a very fundamental point. Our Cabinet system is unusual amongst Westminster systems in having such a weak centre. Both Australia and Canada have very strong prime ministerial departments. I know that some say that this is a breach of the principles of Cabinet government. But in fact no one in Australia or Canada believes that these departments make their prime ministers more like presidents or dictators or anything of that kind. A great deal of nonsense has been talked about our own prime minister assuming presidential or dictatorial powers. In my view, to achieve success in many areas of policy, one needs a stronger centre, a stronger support system for the Prime Minister and not a weaker one. I believe, for example, that at the present time there are three members of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit and two private secretaries dealing with education and health. These people also have other responsibilities. The Departments of Education and Health have I think nine special advisers between them and thousands of officials helping them. One will not get the dynamic for education or health reform unless one has a stronger centre of government. That seems to be the case whether we have a Labour, a Conservative, or a Liberal Democrat government. I do not believe that a stronger centre would undermine the principles of Cabinet government. Indeed, I believe a strong centre is essential to Cabinet government working effectively. If you have a weak Prime Minister, as perhaps you had for example during the time of Anthony Eden, you do not have good Cabinet government. The Cabinet tends to disintegrate. I believe we need a stronger centre to give a lead and I think that is perfectly compatible with effective Cabinet government, as the Australians and the Canadians have shown.
  (Kate Jenkins) Vernon and I seem to be agreeing rather often. I would entirely agree. It is very easy to get over-excited about Number 10. When I worked in the Cabinet Office both in the mid-1970s and then again in the late eighties, one was conscious all the time that people in Number 10 simply had not enough resources to be able to deal with the immense complexity of material that was going across the desk. I do not think it is a sensible approach to get terribly worried about 10, 20 or 30 people being added to the Downing Street staff. What is of more concern is the question of, if you want to change an institution like the Civil Service, where the driving force has to come from. All my experience has been that it is the Prime Minister. Just like in any other organisation, it is the boss saying this really matters, that counts. If the Prime Minister is known to be taking this seriously, that is the force that really matters, provided that below that level there is an effective mechanism for doing the tedious, day to day chasing up to make sure that people have met their targets. Furthermore, in addition to doing the managerial task of chasing that, to be testing regularly that the things which have been identified as being the ones that are of significance to make a difference are actually producing that effect. That again is an important pressure point. The government is being put under pressure regularly to say, "Yes, we have met our targets and milestones. Here is the evidence", and, "Yes, this is producing the results that we said it would produce." It is the answers to those two questions which are going to put a lot of important pressure into the highways and byways of the system.

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