Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 840 - 859)



  840. Thank you for that. I have also seen you reported as identifying a particular gap between policy making and policy implementing as a real issue. Again perhaps I can move from Marxism Today to Public Finance more recently, where you say, "I have always been of the view that policy-makers underestimate the importance of practical implementation. I am not part of this very British Oxbridge disease that says policy is a high-level thing. I think one of the ways the public sector reforms of the 1980s went wrong was in believing you could separate out policy and implementation." I get the sense from the Government that it is very impatient with the way in which the system still seems to act as a brake on the kind of delivery that it wants. Is that because of this gap between policy implementation? If so, how on earth do we bridge it?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think this Government is impatient with the speed of delivery. The last Government was as well. Much of the public is hoping to see results quickly and cannot quite understand why things are not achieved. As in the quote you read out, it is my view—and again I think this is pretty widely shared—that practical experience, practical implementation, has probably been undervalued in British Government in the past—perhaps in British society as a whole—relative to the formal tasks of writing elegant minutes and memoranda or legislation. One consequence of that has been that we have seen in too many fields policy failures, failures of implementation, failures of delivery. In terms of what should be done to rectify that, there are quite a lot of practical measures which can be taken, and indeed which are being taken, to move towards a culture right across Government which is more focused on delivery and implementation: in career terms rewarding front-line experience, direct involvement in implementation, more highly; ensuring that people are more likely to be promoted quickly if they have actually done some practical things rather than solely operated in policy roles in Whitehall. I think there is a great advantage in bringing more practitioners into the policy-making process much earlier on—this is happening in many departments, it has happened in the Social Exclusion Unit, it has happened in the PIU's work as well—so that we do not see a separation between, as it were, the pure policy specialists and then a different group of people who go off and implement, but rather we see the two as integral, and that the implementers are, right from the start, able to offer a reality check to say, "This policy isn't going to work, it will run into all sorts of problems. The IT issues haven't been grappled with, the human resources issues strategy is flawed" and so on. I think there is a great advantage in doing that. The final point I would say as to why the divide between policy and implementation can be problematic is that not many policies are implemented right first time. With most policies you implement, bits of them work, other things do not, and then you have to improve them, you have to learn quickly, in the light of experience and preferably fairly hard-edged evidence, about which bits are working and which are not. That requires constant feedback between the implementation and policy adjustment, rather than a one-off policy process which then gives a series of instructions to a different group of people who implement it.

  841. I am trying to avoid grand visions now, but do you have in your mind a view of what a structurally reorganised British Government that would meet these criteria that you are defining would look like? Do you see your role as trying to move the system in that direction?
  (Mr Mulgan) No, I do not have a blueprint for a grand structural vision. I think what Government is doing at the moment is right, which is to try to evolve a series of different approaches and methods some of which are set out in reports like the Wiring it Up report from the PIU, of the different ways in which you can achieve better joining-up, better implementation, and to allow these to evolve and to develop and prove themselves. I am actually quite suspicious of grand blueprints and structural redesigns. I think often in the past British Government has gone wrong by people believing that if you created a new architecture, somehow that would automatically solve the underlying problems.

Mr Trend

  842. I have had trouble in deciding whether or not you do have a grand vision. You say you do not, and I am sure that is right. Take something like the case you have cited of social exclusion. You have in fact got a new unit which more and more is, as you say, doing policy and implementation, it is more and more you doing the job of the traditional Civil Service Department, and eventually you will end up with a unit which has a Secretary of State responsible for it in a political sense and a Permanent Secretary responsible for it. You are, in a sense, recasting departments in order to concentrate on priorities, is that not right? I do appreciate the difficulties between vertical and horizontal.
  (Mr Mulgan) I do not think it is. One of the priorities for central units like the PIU and the SEU is not to try to supplant the role of departments, and to be very clear that we only succeed to the extent that we achieve the support of departments, we convince them that the proposals coming from us are correct. In relation to the Social Exclusion Unit, I think you might be hearing evidence from Moira Wallace, and she can speak for them. Many of the things they have been looking at have now been passed out to the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is leading on neighbourhood renewal, setting up new units to implement that body of policy; the DfEE is leading on children and young people, again to set up a new structure with some cross-cutting roles, powers and budgets to take forward implementation.

  843. Who takes responsibility? Who is responsible for seeing the targets, objectives, whatever it is, of the Social Exclusion Unit are met? Is it the Social Exclusion Unit?
  (Mr Mulgan) In each case the task of implementation is clearly allotted to a particular department.

  844. Who will chase them up?
  (Mr Mulgan) They in turn are responsible for achieving the targets which are usually set out in published reports or, indeed, in spending reviews. So it is not the SEU which is responsible, it is the people within departments—permanent secretaries and other officials—who are responsible for achieving those.

  845. Who will take them to task if that franchised-out work is not completed or is not done properly?
  (Mr Mulgan) In a sense, it is part of the normal accountability processes of Government—the Prime Minister, the PSX process and so on. Indeed, so far as possible, the specific targets, if you are asking me about that, which we try wherever possible to put in the form of PSAs and SDAs, then are monitored and reviewed in the context of the PSX process.


  846. Can I finish this mapping exercise, so that we get our minds around this system, before I hand over elsewhere. These are one or two fairly practical questions. When I look at reports of what the PIU has been doing, one question I ask myself is, could some of these have been done by task forces? What is the essential difference between having some of these topics farmed out to a task force or done in the PIU which operates rather similarly to a task force, does it not?
  (Mr Mulgan) There are some similarities. Indeed, when any issue arises on the Government agenda, there is a choice of a whole variety of different tools you can use to look at it. The advantage of the PIU method over task forces is that we put together teams, usually about six or eight people, from mixed backgrounds—some civil servants from departments, some outsiders from business, the public sector, academia and so on, who work full time on the issue for quite a long period (say, six to nine months), doing rigorous analysis of the evidence so we know about what works, what does not work, hopefully thinking creatively about the different options, and then working through very practical proposals and policies. Task forces, which are usually made up of people sitting temporarily, but who have full-time jobs, for all sorts of reasons find it very hard to get into the fundamentals of an issue; they have all sorts of other advantages, but I think that for many of the sorts of topics which we are commissioned to do, that very intensive, full-time work by a team who are working day in and day out together, learning from each other, bringing together a range of different backgrounds from departments, from business and elsewhere, actually is uniquely able to achieve progress in practical policy making. That is not to say that task forces are not often a very useful thing, but I would say that on balance, with a tricky policy issue, the PIU model tends to be better.

  847. Thank you for that. Last week we had in Professor Ron Amman from the Centre for Management and Policy Studies, who was telling us about his trade which was the cutting edge, evidence-based policy analysis. Are not you doing the same kind of thing?
  (Mr Mulgan) We work very closely with the CMPS, and indeed we work in the same building, which helps. We have fairly distinctive tasks. We are given specific policy topics to work on and to come up with very specific recommendations. That is not a job the CMPS has. We often work with them on the early stage of a project, looking at what the evidence tells us. They can help, for example, to survey experience from around the world and from other governments, and feed them into our projects. There is a fairly clear division of labour between us, and we work very closely with them.

  848. Thank you. I am almost done. What about the Strategic Futures Group? What is it, and what is your role, if any, in it?
  (Mr Mulgan) I am glad you asked me that, because there has been somewhat misleading coverage of its role. It is actually an interesting but rather low-key and loose structure which was set up because a lot of departments have, over the last few years, set up strategy units and futures units. Indeed, most of the departments across Whitehall and devolved administrations have units of this kind. Many of them felt, and we felt too, that there could be an advantage in bringing them together in a single group who could share experience, share information and ideas. We, as the PIU, provide some support to that, and are doing some bits of research—for example, studying best practice around the world in futures and strategic work—which we will then feed in to that group. It has absolutely no power. We do not command anybody, co-ordinate anybody, tell anybody what they should do. Those individual units within departments can only be successful to the extent that they have the confidence and full support of their Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, so any centralised control over them would be completely counterproductive. I would emphasise this point. It is, in a sense, a voluntarist grouping of different units, and it will only work to the extent that they get something back out of it. My role is a role again without any authority. I just happen to chair their meetings. Certainly it is quite an interesting development, it is part of Government trying to be more long term, it is about trying to survey different possible futures, different trends, in order to improve the quality of decision-making within departments, but is in no way part of a centralisation of power in Whitehall, let alone any political control over these units.

  849. Let me finally ask, who then decides what you look at?
  (Mr Mulgan) We go through a fairly wide-ranging trawling process to define what projects we should be doing. We ask departments what they think we should be doing. We ask others around the centre of Government and, indeed, I hope in future we will cast the net even wider. Although I think it would be fair to say that in the very early days of the PIU there was some suspicion on the part of departments that we were, in a sense, coming as perhaps part of a sort of bossy centre, more and more departments have come to us proposing projects we should do. Of the last four or five projects we have announced in the last couple of months, one was proposed by DfID, one by DETR, one we are doing in close collaboration with the Treasury, one came from Number Ten, one we are doing with the DfEE. So we are now actually becoming a much more collective resource for Government. As I said, I hope that in future we can have an even more open process for identifying topics. I should say that out of that process we develop quite a long list of potential topics to look at. We then put together small teams to scope them, to work out whether there really is something we can add value on, whether there are practical results which can be achieved, whether the department is already doing the job perfectly well, and out of that try to focus on a much shorter list of recommendations to the Prime Minister of projects we actually do think should be fully-fledged PIU projects with sponsor Ministers and so on.

  850. So you propose to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister decides?
  (Mr Mulgan) That is right, but after an extremely open trawl and consultation across Whitehall.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. Andrew Tyrie.

Mr Tyrie

  851. Do you answer to the Prime Minister?
  (Mr Mulgan) I report to the Prime Minister, through Sir Richard Wilson.

  852. Have you seen, and do you look at all frequently at, the organisation chart for the Cabinet Office?
  (Mr Mulgan) I do not look at any organisation charts very often, no.

  853. Could you tell me why not?
  (Mr Mulgan) You had an interesting discussion on organisation charts, I know, in this Committee, and there is nothing I can add to that.

  854. I cannot remember that. Perhaps you could remind the Committee which bit you do not feel you are able to add to (I mean to the discussion we had)? Do you think the organisation chart tells us very much about what is going on in the Cabinet Office? Would you use it as a way of trying to find out what is going on in the Cabinet Office?
  (Mr Mulgan) Probably not.

  855. Does this imply—it may have no bearing at all—for example, that the Cabinet Office itself needs a bit of wiring up?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think you are quite shortly going to be taking evidence from a number of people in the Cabinet Office who are much better able to answer that question than I am. All I would say is that we in the PIU see ourselves as part of the centre of Government as a whole, which includes the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Number Ten. We are only effective to the extent that we wire up very well with all of those bits of the machinery. I think that broadly speaking, with projects the PIU carries on, the follow through and so on, the centre operates as a pretty integrated whole, contrary to what you might imagine from some of the media reporting of the centre of Government. As I say, I really cannot answer for other bits of the Cabinet Office, but in terms of the policy topics we carry out, working relationships are very close right across the centre. If I were to draw an organisation chart, I would want it to include all the different parts of the centre, rather than separating out the Cabinet Office, because I think that leads to a slightly misleading view of how things are run.

  856. Could we have one of those charts?
  (Mr Mulgan) As I say, I am not the person to ask for one of those, and since I got a U in my Art `O'Level, I would probably come up with a much worse one.

  Chairman: I think we will accept that as the get-out clause.

Mr Tyrie

  857. You used to be, until very recently, a special adviser. I understand that you passed a message that you do not want to answer questions on special advisers and their role, and I will respect that. However, I would like to ask you, for a start, why you switched? You were an adviser until very recently, and now you are a civil servant. Why?
  (Mr Mulgan) That is a personal question. I have been previously in my career a public servant in local government and in Europe long before I was a special adviser, so for me it was in no way a strange move to become a civil servant of national Government. The PIU I thought had done an extremely good job in its first two years, and I can say that because I take no credit for it whatsoever. When the job was advertised I had already spent some time as a special adviser, it was probably time to move on, and the PIU job was as attractive a job as I could imagine. I had always envisaged at some point moving into public service, though I had not decided whether that should be local or national Government, and I saw it as an opportunity which was too good to miss.

  858. Will you work for an incoming Conservative administration?
  (Mr Mulgan) Yes.

  859. The only reason I ask is that there is only one precedent that I know of for the switch you have made, although you may know lots; I only know of one of any significance, and that is Terry Burns who came in as Chief Economic Adviser in 1979, became a permanent civil servant in about 1987—you may know the exact dates—and did not have a happy time when there was a change of Government, indeed I think it is common knowledge in the Whitehall village that he had a very unhappy time. The reason I asked the question is that there is in the public perception, I think, and, from what I can tell, rightly, quite a big difference between the character of people who are at present special advisers and the kinds of people who are civil servants. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Mulgan) As Sir Richard has said, special advisers vary greatly in the kinds of people they are, their kinds of backgrounds, their degree of expertise. I am not going to comment on that. In relation to Terry Burns, again it is not for me to comment on an individual case, although I would say that I think in many respects he did show that you could make that transition and he has since been appointed to an important role by this Government, whatever may or may not have transpired.

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