Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence





  736. Good afternoon, everyone. We are delighted to have with us David Walker, the Analysis Editor of The Guardian, and Professor Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Government at the LSE, both experienced and acute observers of British Government and both, it could be said, critical observers of British Government and, we hope, people who have got some reforms to suggest to us as part of the inquiry that we are doing. Could I start by asking both of you, before we go into ideas about how we might change things, if you could try and tell us in a nutshell what is wrong? Why do we not celebrate the system of government, this splendid example of stability with these wonderful distinctions between politicians and administrators, impartial, neutral civil servants, all the things that we have learned at our mother's knee, rather than having to worry about reforming it?

  (Mr Walker) I had prepared one or two remarks in so far as my initial memorandum was rather sketchy. They do, I hope, give an answer to that.

  737. You remind me of my duties. Normally I do invite people to give us a brief introduction. By all means, if you have one, we would be very glad to hear it.
  (Mr Walker) What I want to say first of all is that I am a mere journalist and you all have had dealings with journalists and know that we are simply responsible for the output that we have in terms of writing and broadcasting. We are not in any way responsible in the way that you are to your electorate.

  738. Humble seekers after truth.
  (Mr Walker) Or in the way that public managers are, so there is that disclaimer, certainly from me. What I was going to say was that the rubric that you have had in making government more effective seems perhaps to have not addressed one thing which I might hopefully make a contribution towards, which is evaluating the organisation and culture of the Civil Service in terms of delivering public services as they are understood by your constituents. Immodestly, I wanted to call to your attention this booklet, Living with Ambiguity, which I recently wrote for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, intended simply as a contribution to the discussion, its point being how difficult it is—impossible even—to talk about effectiveness without thinking about local services, local governance, to use the portmanteau phrase, and so the future of elected local government. The pamphlet concludes that the revivalist scenario sometimes sketched for local authorities, a rebirth of local democracy perhaps around executive mayors, is not going to happen as long as the people of England—and there are differences obviously in Scotland and Wales—desire uniformity in the provision of such basic services as schooling, child care, trading standards and so on. We effectively already have, I say, a national service culture, so why—and this is the gist of my contribution to your deliberations this afternoon—do we not accept that in terms of the way government is organised and the public services constituted? Let me briefly take a pace backwards. My main criticism of the advice tendered to the Blair Government by the Civil Service is that it has been under-informed about the conditions of local service delivery. Too often, especially in programmes emanating from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Department of Health and so on, a Civil Service mind can be seen at work using what I consider an antiquated model of public service. Let me briefly explain. Civil servants are generally ignorant of the conditions of local service delivery, especially inside local government. In those Departments with a local service delivery arm, such as the Departments of Social Security, Education and Employment, relations with local authorities are sometimes cold, sometimes rivalrous, sometimes even hostile. The scant progress made towards one-stop shopping for public services attests to that. The relative paucity of role swapping between the DETR, for example, and local authorities (and I am well aware of what Sir Richard Wilson said to you when you spoke to him in November about the great expansion in secondments and attachments) speaks for itself and certainly attests to the existence of a gulf. Briefly leaving aside the oxymoron of there being a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, we are, in thinking about the Government's attention to local communities, agreed that there are fairly intellectual underpinnings for its policy for, for example, deprived communities. The latest DETR indices of deprivation is a formidable piece of work. The new strategy, says the Government, is about "ensuring someone takes responsibility" about joining up public services locally and "helping enable deprived communities have some leverage over local services". Taking those phrases, I am asking who do the Government or the Government's Civil Service advisers mean by "the agents of local service delivery" or "local change"? How does the centre reach down towards the settlements on Merseyside, for example, which are deemed to be deprived and so on? The trouble is that the horse, if you like, of elected local government bolted some time ago. It has been quite obvious for some considerable period of time that we are not going to go back. We can never go back to the original 1920s, 1930s model of municipal service delivery. What I am questioning is why there has not been a movement further forward in thinking at the centre about the modes and mechanisms of delivering services. I am not discounting Ministers' prejudices about elected local government. I am saying that it seems to me that one reason for the current huge complexity of programme delivery at local level is civil servants' inability to think imaginatively and sympathetically about local conditions; which is not a plea, I emphasise, for using councils more or returning powers to councillors. It is to observe that the gap is where the local authority is not trusted to deliver new money and new initiatives which then leads to the centre dreaming up a set of weird and wonderful (and certainly diverse) different mechanisms. I am saying, I suppose, that the Civil Service, all too conscious of status differences between Whitehall and local government and its own distance from local service delivery, has seemed ill-equipped to think through the consequences of the effort of breakdown in local government settlement. To be fair, some of this has been picked up by the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office which was going to study local leadership in the round, a generic issue, although I gather that report is not likely yet or in the near future to see the light of day. I suppose I am saying again that in education, prevention of crime, social services and so on there is a sort of black hole in the centre's thinking about the system of service delivery. To cut a long story short, it seems to me that we do need to rid the public service of its binary fixation: central and local on different sides. This might mean reconstituting the public service as a generic category differentiated by function, certainly, but no longer in anachronistic terms Whitehall/town hall. Common training, common ethos, might follow. I suppose I am also implying, not very originally, that radical change in the nature of public service at the centre of the state, where contributions to delivery might become the hallmark of success (and I do not think, despite what Sir Richard Wilson told you, that that is anywhere near the case yet), would have to be built into the notion rather than the development of amorphous criteria for Civil Service success which Whitehall currently adheres to. To summarise, I am not saying that all top civil servants should spend time running the Benefits Agency on the way up. What I am observing (not very originally) is how remarkable it is that you can get to the top of any public service system without intense familiarity with the local conditions of service delivery. I should say, having used that word "delivery" more than once, that one is not just talking about delivery of benefits or ensuring that the streets are swept. I think delivery, certainly under this Government, has come to mean a much wider sense of trying to ensure behaviourial change on the part of individuals and groups of individuals such that their lives can be better led. In conclusion, that too demands an attentiveness, a closeness, to the conditions in which people live their lives locally but, more pertinently for civil servants, close familiarity with the systems those people often rely on to deliver their public benefits.

  739. That is immensely interesting and we shall want to talk to you about that in a moment. I wonder if I could ask Professor Dunleavy who, I should add, is a specialist adviser to the Committee, if he wants to say anything to start with.
  (Professor Dunleavy) I have submitted a memorandum but I will perhaps recap orally on the key points in that. The first difficulty that one has in taking an optimistic view of the current operations of the Civil Service and central government particularly is that we do seem to have now quite a regular history of making large scale policy mistakes. I think people in Britain probably think of this as inevitable, as some sort of corollary of government behaviour generally, but actually we are very exceptional in Europe in the extent to which we make large scale mistakes and then we have to go back on them at considerable cost. I think that there are some constitutional origins of that. The United Kingdom has been a very large centralised unit and I agree completely with David's comments on the rather assertive Civil Service way of handling some national governments. England still remains one of the largest undifferentiated units of government administration in the western world outside of Japan and the British policy process is a policy process without many checks and balances. These are all contributory factors but I do think also that the contribution which the Civil Service makes in terms of offering excellent policy advice is a factor in large scale mistakes being made and being repeatedly made. I listed in my memorandum 17 different mistakes in the last ten years and in fact I have missed out a couple, one of which is the SERPS disaster which you have been investigating and possibly you might have pensions mis-selling as well. One reason for this, moving on to the second point in the memorandum, is that the Civil Service structure was defined at a period when the task of dealing with policy succession and leadership succession, a handover from a Government of a liberal or a left persuasion to a Government of a conservative persuasion, as the answer to the dominant problem. It is set up very well for dealing with that. It has always handled that problem very well. It is a machine which is politically attuned and which swings into action very readily behind whatever the Government's manifesto commitments are, perhaps a little too readily. The problem is that in the modern period we do not really see a set of policy issues which are defined fundamentally on left/right grounds. They are much more risk issues, issues to do with the commitment of resources or the regulation of society. These risk issues require a different model of expertise and it is a model of expertise which the current system in the Civil Service, which has endured at the senior levels and the centre essentially unchanged for a very long time, is very poorly adapted to meet. A third thing is that if you look at the Civil Service current reforms there are interesting and explicit commitments on changing the gender balance, or improving the representation of ethnic minorities, or the treatment of disabled people. There is no service-wide strategy, so far as one can tell, for improving the expertise and educational qualifications of the higher Civil Service. The problem here is that Britain now is very radically out of line with other major industrial countries. We have a very low proportion of people who have had anything more than undergraduate education and we have people who have very rarely had a vocationally relevant educational path. Half of the senior Civil Service in the USA has done postgraduate training in a vocationally relevant subject like an MBA or law degree or Master of Public Administration or something of that kind. Ninety eight per cent of them have done postgraduate training, 16 per cent of them have doctorates. We cannot see anything approaching that. Britain is untypical also in Europe now. There does not seem to be any commitment to improving the educational qualifications. You might wonder, for example, is it a good idea to recruit people directly from university who have only done undergraduate education? Should fast stream recruits be expected to either have already done or complete within five years of joining the Service a relevant postgraduate qualification? These sorts of issues do not seem to be being addressed anywhere in the current reform plans. The fourth point is that it is very unclear who is running the Civil Service as a whole. The Cabinet Office has the major responsibility but its internal structure is extremely complex and includes a large number of small units, all of whom seem to be pursuing individual issue agendas. It is not clear how they are co-ordinated. There are four Permanent Secretaries in the Cabinet Office now. I do not know for the life of me what the different roles of each of them are and I am sure that most journalists and most senior civil servants would not know who was supposed to be running what. Also the division between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office is still unclear. I will make one comment about joined-up governance which is that it seems to have progressed a little bit. If the current discussions of Whitehall reforms are correct we seem to be heading into a process of rather conventional departmental reorganisation on client lines and that seems to be a recognition that joined-up governance is very difficult to achieve under the current set of arrangements and is not likely to progress very far in the future.


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