Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 985 - 999)




  985. On behalf of the Committee, can I welcome our witnesses this afternoon, Sir Michael Bichard, from the DfEE, and Sir Richard Mottram, from DETR, Permanent Secretaries both, and therefore people that the Committee particularly wants to talk to, as part of its inquiry into Making Government Work. I do not know if either of you would like to say anything by way of opening remarks, or whether we will just carry on?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I would not, Chairman.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No.

  986. Then let me be the person to do it. Perhaps I could start with Michael Bichard. Like many people, I have been interested in the things that you have been saying since you have been a Permanent Secretary, because they seem to me to be things different from what Permanent Secretaries normally say, and I am sure the Committee would like to explore some of the issues with you, and ask Richard Mottram to contribute, too. If I could start perhaps with the extremely interesting interview that you gave to the Stakeholder magazine, soon into your appointment, the nice heading "The Outsider v. the Club". There is a bit in here, you are talking about how the Civil Service needs to bring in different kinds of people and manage them in different ways, and you say "a lot of people think, `if we keep our heads down, people like Bichard will bugger off soon and we'll carry on being policy advisers like we've always been.'" What were you really trying to say to them?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I would have thought it was fairly clear what I was trying to say, Chairman. I was trying to say, at the time, that I felt the Civil Service was in need of reform, and, since I gave that interview, which was 18 months ago, I think we have seen a considerable effort to reform, there is a lot of activity. I think the questions now, and I know Richard Wilson said this when he was here, are whether the activity is being translated to the extent that we would all want, in change on the ground, and I think the question is whether or not, taken together, all of the activity and the reforms that are in hand will, at the end of the day, produce a Civil Service which is perceived to be modern enough for the society it serves. And I think we need to keep a close eye on how the reform programme is going and ask those questions constantly.

  987. And, just so that we can get a general sense, is your feeling, so far, that the reform programme is going in the kind of direction that you were implicitly advocating in those remarks that you made?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think it is addressing a lot of the issues that I tried to open up in that interview. I think the need to bring more people into the Service is being addressed, and I am actually rather pleased at the progress that we have made within the Department, and I know Richard will want to speak for his own Department, I am pleased about the progress that we have made in bringing new people into the Department. I think that is absolutely key to enhancing creativity and ensuring that there is a stronger understanding of delivery on the ground. We have brought in some really excellent, senior people from the voluntary sector, from the local authorities and from the private sector. I am pleased at the emphasis that has been put upon performance management, business planning; I am pleased that we have grasped the nettle of relative assessment. I do not want to bore people with the theology of the Civil Service's appraisal system, but I think the step from a system which is based upon absolute standards to one which takes account of relative performance is a huge step forward. I am pleased that we are grasping the nettle of rewarding the good people more, and bringing them through the grades quicker than has been the case in the past, because I think people need signals when they are performing well. So I am pleased about a number of the things that are happening. Again, I think the question is, are we yet moving quickly enough, and I guess I am always one of those people, irritatingly, who is going to be saying we ought to move even more quickly, with more urgency. I think we probably do not.

  988. And the areas where you think more urgency is particularly required are, what?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am not sure I would pick out a particular area. I think I could say on all of them that there is activity, there is effort and there is progress, but if you take bringing people in, for example, although there have been some successes, I think there is a lot more that we need to do to help people outside of the Civil Service to understand the Civil Service better. Because I am convinced that some people are not applying for jobs in the Civil Service, when they are advertised—and more jobs are being advertised—because they just do not know how the Service operates, whether those jobs are worth having, they are not sure that the Service will offer them a reasonably secure career. So I think we need to do a lot more to open ourselves up to help people to understand the Service, to get them involved more. We are beginning to get people from outside involved in benchmarking exercises within my Department, so that they learn about how the system works, so that when we do advertise posts they are more likely to apply; we are bringing a lot more people in on exchanges and secondments, so they can spend some time with us, and, again, be more likely to apply. Wherever you look in the reform programme, it is important not just to do a few things, not just to be complacent about progress you make, but really to try to get under the skin of the issue and make a profound change; that, I think, will transform the Service. If you put together everything we are doing in the reform programme, it has the potential to transform, not just to reform, but it needs urgency and it needs depth.

  989. Thank you. Perhaps I could ask both of you, again, just to get a sense of where you think we are at, if you look at all the things that are going on, on the various changes to the way in which Government works, including the things that you are now describing, the attempt to join up and so on; do you think it is possible to say yet that this is making Government work better?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I think that there have been improvements in the processes through which central government tries to join up its policies, and those are improvements both in the central departments, improvements in departments, like my own, that we could talk about, a strong sense, and I very much agree with the things Michael has said about this, of the need to think more about how we can make policy-making effective, both across central government and up and down between the people who make the policy and the people who deliver it. All of that, I think, has improved over the last few years, and I think people are thinking about that in a much more imaginative and better way. When you turn to the record in terms of are things better for people on the ground as a result, secondly, I would say, I think, that the relationship between central government and local government has improved very considerably over the last two or three years. Then if you think about delivery the answer is that the record is patchy, you can see that there are considerable improvements in the performance of some public services, but what is quite clear is that there is a long way to go before people on the ground, as they say, in that rather unfortunate phrase, really have confidence that they are getting services which meet their needs and are flexible and are related to their needs, as opposed to what the system wants to serve up. So my view would be, yes, there has been significant progress; there is plenty of room to go.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think the crosscutting issue, the joining-up issue, which I know the Committee has been quite interested in, is a really important one, and it illustrates some of the points that I was making in general terms a few moments ago. I do think there have been improvements. If you look again in the DfEE, you will see the Sure Start Unit, 19 of the most senior staff there, 13 have come in from outside; and, actually, by the way, I think some of the people who are coming in from outside have got a more highly developed concept of joining-up, because they have tended to be on the receiving end. So you see things like the Sure Start Unit, you see the Children's Unit, at the centre you see the Social Exclusion Unit, which I think has done some excellent work, and the Performance Innovation Unit. You see us bringing in, as I have said, more people, but, the question is, how do you get this into the life-blood of the organisation so that civil servants instinctively see the importance of joining-up; because I think one of the reasons that governments, and this is obviously not a party political point, but the Civil Service, sometimes, has been brought into disrepute is because people out there have not seen us adequately grasping the issues that really matter to them, other than in silos. Now if you are going to get that into the life-blood of civil servants then you have got to do a lot about setting joint targets, you have got to start looking at giving bonuses to teams that span departments, you have got to look at the possibility of joint budgets and joint management team meetings. We have had an excellent meeting recently with the DCMS, another one coming up with the Home Office, but those things have not happened naturally in the past. So you have got to do all of those sorts of things, and you have got to sustain them over a period of time, during which, gradually, people instinctively will see the need to join up their thinking across the Department, which is a problem for us, I have got as much problem getting people to join up their thinking within the Department as beyond the Department.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Could I just add a point, Chairman. I do think this is an area where I suppose I differ from what Michael said in his interview, that you started with. I do think we have to be a bit careful about generalising from particular experience. I spent most of my career, until 1998, either in the Ministry of Defence or in the Cabinet Office. In the Ministry of Defence, virtually from the day I joined, there was a very strong sense that that Department would be effective only if its policies and its programmes were joined up with the policies of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the policies and information supplied by the Cabinet Office, particularly through the intelligence machine, and so on, and this was absolutely the life-blood of the organisation. So it is not the case that the Civil Service is incapable, or has been incapable, of joining up its policies. What I think is true is that certain parts of the Civil Service, certain parts of the Government, have had a much stronger record in relation to these things than others. So I think we have to be cautious. It is not the case that we have suddenly tripped over these things and the Civil Service has a consistent record of failing to tackle them. It is actually that the record has been patchy. That would be the same, for example, in relation to something like business planning, where the whole basis on which the Ministry of Defence worked was centred on having an effective long-term plan; and certainly when I came to the DETR I could see there were issues there that related to how the civil side of Government worked. So I think we have to be cautious about generalising too much.

  990. If I can just keep you on this. When you read Michael Bichard's analysis, as set out in the article—which I know that you have read, too, because I saw you looking at it just now—and you see the argument which goes: the Civil Service has been pretty dreadful, in many respects, and it is far too hierarchical, or gradist, as you call it, it is not creative, it does not deal with teams, it does not bring people in, it does not bring people on, it is lousy at policy-making, all these; when you see—
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I would not agree with that.

  991. Michael Bichard winces, but I have got his `Modernising the Policy Process' lecture here: "My conclusion is that the Civil Service is too complacent about the quality of its policy advice and that it needs to be more radical in its attempts to modernise the process." And, I thought, splendidly argued.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I would agree with that, but that is not to imply that everything that goes before it is actually true, because it is not true, in my view.

  992. Sorry, which bit is not true?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) It is not true that the Civil Service has been incapable of creative policy-making. I have been involved personally, in my past life, in some very creative pieces of policy-making, which were recognised as being in the forefront of what could be achieved within Government. Now, if you say that, however, you are then in danger of being, "Ah, well, this is complacent, a bit conservative," and all those things, "not sufficiently reformist;" the club, you are then part of the club, you see. Of course, you can always do better. If you were in an organisation that could not do better, if you thought that, you would not deserve to be anywhere in it, would you; so I think it is an issue of perspective.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I winced because at no time in that pamphlet did I say that the Civil Service had been lousy at policy. I did say that it was complacent, and I did say that it had defined good policy too narrowly. I said that they had defined good policy very much in terms of whether it was intellectually clever, and whether it was politically defensible, and that that was no longer sufficient, and good policy now needed to be, where possible, evidence-based, well evaluated, well communicated, focused on issues rather than issues as defined by bureaucracies, it needed to be creative and innovative, more creative and more innovative. That was why I was wincing.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) And I agree with that.

  993. As you see, I am an avid reader of your collected works.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I can tell that, Chairman. I am delighted.

  994. I thought it was a very compelling and robust statement about why the Civil Service was not very good at making policy, and particularly you say it is no good at these wicked issues, which are the big issues of our time, it is good at segmented issues but not good at the interlocking ones. This is a very serious indictment of a policy-making machine, is it not?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think, where the policy-making machine can be criticised, and I did criticise it, is around those issues, and I mentioned things like ageing, where I think people outside of Government, outside of the Civil Service have criticised us for not being able to bring together the work that was being done, for example, in my own Department and in the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security, and looking at this across Government; and I think we should be better at that. And I said also, and I stand by this, that the accountability frameworks should encourage us more than they do to look at the issues.

  995. Of course, you did say, "Everyone believes that policy has been an unqualified success, although that does rather fly in the face of all the evidence." This is fairly strong meat?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes; well, there are some examples that would suggest that it has not been absolutely perfect, and if you had spent a good deal of your time, as I did, seeking to deliver policy, either as Chief Executive of an Executive Agency, or as the Chief Executive of two local authorities, you might be slightly more sceptical about the quality of some of the policy than if you had been on the developmental end of it.

  996. That is why we are so interested in your observations, because it is that particular experience that you have. Let me just ask this last question and I will hand over. Is a conclusion, from some of this thinking, that you both contributed to just now, that the departmental silos themselves get in the way of the joined-up-ness that we are after? The newspapers are full of reports at the moment, as you will be well aware, of plans, it is said, post-election, to break up some of these departments, to make them more theme-based, DETR is the prime candidate. These great conglomerated departments, do they not get in the way of the kind of focused, themed approach to wicked issues, that we need to be engaged upon?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) We could come on later, perhaps, to the future of DETR, a subject dear to my heart. I think that there is a danger here—and I read some of the previous evidence to the Committee, which I thought was extremely interesting, on this subject—that there is a sort of caricature of Government that says what Government is all about is trying to be horizontal, trying to deal with these so-called `wicked issues', and departments are not ideally suited to that task, and that if only departments would get out of the way, or do what they were told, we would solve these problems. Whereas I am a great believer in the thought that, actually, effective Government depends upon effective, horizontal co-ordination, absolutely, but it also depends upon accountable delivery; and, in my view, it is no surprise, therefore, that we have departmental Ministers who are individually and collectively accountable, for example, for the way that departments go about their business. There is not a magic solution, which involves readjusting the organisational responsibilities of departments. I would be very happy to go through all of the component parts of the DETR and explain to you how that works and why it is put together like that; of course, it could be put together differently, Chairman. The point is, you have to have horizontal co-ordination, you have to have responsibility for delivery, and most of that is vertical. Now, if I could say just one more thing, what is absolutely right is that you must not have departments thinking that their be all and end all is to defend their patch, you must have a sense of collective, shared responsibility, both at the political level and amongst officials. Now we, Michael and I, actually spend quite a lot of our time trying to develop that sense of shared responsibility. In my own Department, the message of my own Department, that I constantly give them, is, "You are there to serve the Government as a whole, you are actually doing things which relate to the policies of DfEE, we are a Department that contributes to the Health agenda, all these things; we are not a Department in a little silo, doing our own thing, we are trying to produce a result which is a joined-up result, across Government, and that is why we have a Civil Service, we do not have a DETR Civil Service, we have a Civil Service." So the important point is to get that message across and to have a culture in the Civil Service and an approach to how you develop and train people and how you move them around that reinforces that sense; and once you have done that you have got to have little blocks in which people are accountable for doing things.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I very much agree with that. I think that what really matters is the way in which people behave, rather than the way that you structure them. Now that is not to say that structural change is never a good idea, sometimes, I think, it is so obviously necessary that you should do it. But I always take the view that you should only change the structure when you are 90 per cent certain that the existing structure is not working, is not delivering, and 90 per cent certain that the new structure will deliver; because, otherwise, people will just spend two years being uncertain, disrupted, trying to find ways of carrying on doing things in the same way as they used to, but in a different structure. Now sometimes it makes sense, I would say, would I not, I think the DfEE has been an example of where we have been able to overcome some of the battles that were taking place between Education and Employment, when they were separate Departments, I do not believe that we would have been able to make the progress we have been able to make on post-16 education, for example, and learning, if the two Departments had existed in isolation. But you do need to be careful about it, and, I agree with Richard, somehow we have got to get people, whatever structure they are working in, to think in a more connected way. And that is why I said earlier things like joint teams, joint budgets, more flexible working arrangements, bonuses for teams of people that are working in different departments but are working in a team on a particular project, ministerial champions, units like the Sure Start Unit, where you are bringing people from different departments, where you have got a couple of Ministers involved in sponsoring that. There is a whole range of flexible solutions, which, I think, at the end of the day, will probably have more impact than massive reorganisations.

  997. Just before we leave this, if you were doing a note to the Prime Minister about this, or the Cabinet Secretary, and wanting to get hold of these wicked issues, and the rest of it, you would be saying, "Broadly speaking, the structure we have got now does the job for us;" is that right?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No. What I am saying is that you should think very, very carefully about whether or not you change the existing structure, and you had better be pretty certain before you do it that it is going to deliver the results that you expect from it. I am not going to get involved in a discussion today about specifics, it is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister, advised by the Cabinet Secretary.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Could I add just one thing, because I very much agree with that, obviously, with the rider that Michael just gave, these are not matters for us. But if one thought about some of the issues, let us say, to do with social exclusion, that the Government is working on, some of those wicked issues, which are the ones I know most about, I think we have now developed quite an effective process within Government—obviously we can make it better, and I know you are coming on to discuss some of this on another occasion—with the Social Exclusion Unit working in the centre, having actually a positive and co-operative relationship with departments, which, in my view, is crucial, getting agreement on what has to be done and then handing it on to departments to do it. Now, when it gets handed on, I would not say that was a stress-free, easy process. It never is. Because all of these wicked issues actually require departments to agree a focus and to follow it through, when it may not be their own main priority. It forces them to confront whether this is the issue they want to give most weight to, or whatever. But we have, I think, mechanisms which will enable these issues to be dealt with, and there is a will within the Civil Service, very much on the lines that Michael was talking about, to tackle them.

Mr White

  998. We have just looked at some of the effects of some of the Government's initiatives in the regions, and we saw a very good Sure Start in Sunderland, we saw a Health Action Zone and we saw a few other things. It is interesting we have got the two of you here, because, with the DfEE, there are a number of Education Action Zones which have had specific money given to them, entirely focused on what they are supposed to deliver; and we have just had the Neighbourhood Renewal coming through DETR, which is very much more about allowing local flexibility. Because one of the criticisms you get from people at the receiving end of the money is that the centre either prescribes too much or does not give enough money if it is too flexible. How do you reconcile those two issues, given that both your Departments actually bring quite a lot of public money into localities, but with different strings attached?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am not sure whether you are looking at me and pausing for me to go first, or not, but I will. I think, and this is not meant to be a kind of theoretical, academic point, one of the most, probably the most, difficult decisions that you have to make in public administration, whether you are a politician or an official, is when to prescribe and when to devolve, when to say, "This money is going to be spent in this specific way," or when to say, "We want you to use your discretion." Now it is true, of course, that many people say that the DfEE has been too prescriptive, and that that runs counter to the general thrust of Government policy, and the DETR's policy in particular. I believe that there have been issues, and certainly my Secretary of State does, that where it was necessary to ensure that the resource was spent specifically, if you take literacy and numeracy and school improvements as an example, where performance locally had not been good, over the years, that there was a strong argument for saying that in those cases you should prescribe and be specific. I would accept entirely, and I think the Secretary of State would, too, that that is a decision which you need to keep coming back to, and that, ideally, what you should be looking for is local ownership of policy and acceptance that local people tend to know best where resources should be spent. So I do not think there is a difference; and it may well be that, over time, there will be perceived to be a greater unity than there is at the moment.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I do not think this is (and I do not think you framed the question this way) a DETR versus DfEE argument, particularly. I think it is quite an interesting tension in what the Government is trying to do. I do not want to overgeneralise, and I will answer your question more specifically in a second, but the Government is both extremely keen to have this horizontal approach, this holistic approach, that you have discussed with others, but the pressure is on all of us, on our Secretaries of State, on us, quite rightly, actually to improve delivery on the ground, in specific ways, very, very quickly; and we all know the tensions that can arise in relation to that. So Michael and his Secretary of State have got very demanding targets, to raise the educational standards in the country very quickly, and for very good public policy reasons; and you just have to try to manage those tensions. Now the way in which I suppose we are trying to manage them is certainly to say that if we are going to get buy-in, over a long period of time, to changing the quality of the way in which things are delivered, we cannot do that if this is a top-down, command and control process. We have to find ways of giving people a sense that these are policies and programmes that are being framed with their interests in mind, and that actually they are shaped in relation to the local community; and, again, there is no difference between us on that. I would say, for example, that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is one of the great champions within the Government of the importance of genuine local consultation. Now, as opposed to these things just being producer-driven but at a different level to be crude about it, what we are trying to do, certainly with things like the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and that whole apparatus, is actually rather more fundamental, because the money that we are handing to local authorities is just a small part of the story; the story is a bigger one. The big story is all Government departments are now being required to think about their policies not just in terms of their average impact on the ground but their specific impact on the ground in those neighbourhoods that are most deprived and most need help; and that, I think, is a big challenge. Although we are in charge of some of that programme, it is not something the DETR alone can deliver. It is just as important that the DfEE are delivering in relation to education, and Michael is busily going about trying to do that. So what we are trying to do is can we actually get every Department engaged in that effort, and then the main programmes to tackle it, not simply just to have the little add-ons, the sort of icing on the cake. If I can then make one more point, what I think is absolutely true is that, if you are on the ground, and Michael and I know this only too well, because, going round the country, people make this point to you, wherever you go, trying to deal with the great weight of Whitehall, and its Zones, and its bits of money coming at you, this can be quite a bewildering and sub-optimal process. And we have done work which traces the way some of this money goes round the system. It does not make sense, and you have got overlapping boundaries between things, which do not make sense. And that is because it is being done from above, actually by people who know a little bit about the ground but do not know as much as the people who are on it, so to speak, rather than being done by thinking about "What does it look like if I'm in this community, what is the shape of this community, how does it add up, what makes sense of it, geographically," and so on. And certainly we are committed to trying to do better there, through a number of processes, including, over time, rationalising the various Zones within Government. And we have a group, again within my Department but which really works for the whole of Government, that is working on this to ensure that, over time, we get a simpler, more streamlined structure which people on the ground, who are the ones that matter, actually can understand and relate to.

  999. Is not one of the problems that we, as Parliament, allocate the money to you, as departments, and that it is the issue of the departmental budgets that is one of the blocks to solving that particular issue we are talking about?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I do not think, myself, that is a very big problem. I think Parliament has to allocate it to departments. It has to hold people to account for the money. But if we take some of the cross-departmental programmes that I am responsible for, I am quite happy for Parliament to hold me to account, but I can assure you they are being delivered in a way that thinks about the Government as a whole. I am not sitting there saying the thing that matters to me is DETR. As I often say to people, DETR is not a big deal for me. I did not grow up in it. It is not my whole life. I am proud to be in charge of it, but it is not something that I am protective of, or defensive of. I am very keen that, if we are doing something on the ground with DETR "money", it is something that delivers for the whole Government. And, for instance, my Department are responsible for regeneration; we are very keen that the basis on which regeneration money is spent is one that meets the needs of all departments, including Michael's, and we have a whole series of mechanisms to try to make sure that that is precisely what happens.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think you are wrong, actually, I think we are beginning to see examples of resources being allocated to issues, rather than to departments; okay, it is not big yet, but it is happening. And I think it was one of the interesting outcomes of the last Comprehensive Spending Review; and that is how, of course, we set up the Sure Start Unit, that is how we set up the Children's Fund and the Children's Unit. The initial reaction, I think, when we first did it, was, from our friends in the Treasury, "Yes, but who's really responsible, who's really accountable?" I think we have got past that now, so that there is an understanding that you can have joint accountability, and there are arrangements which I think are working very well. I hope, I am sure, the Government intends that that should develop and we shall see more of that.

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