Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)



  20. The Centre of Government, if I can call it that, was pretty extensively changed a year ago. Here it is being changed again. Is that not a recognition that a dreadful mistake was made a year ago?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No. The analogy that comes to mind—you may think it is slightly obscure—is that I was told by someone that if you want to play golf always play golf with people who started life playing team games. Do not play golf with people who just play golf. The reason is that in team games if you do well they say, "Well done, you get 50 or you take five wickets or so" and they congratulate you. If you play golf and you play well they say, "Your handicap needs to be cut". Now, what you are saying is that my handicap needs to be cut. If you are trying to take something on and improve it, it does not mean that what went before was a mistake. What you are doing is improving it. Another analogy, when Bill Gates introduces another round of Windows, he is not saying that Windows 95 was a mistake; he is simply saying that Windows 2000 is better than what went before. The units that were created are all still in this new design. I have not said to them, "It was a mistake to set up the PIU or it was a mistake to create a unit". I have taken on all of them because I believe there is a function for them. I think I can improve the way they work as a team, but actually the decision to set up those units in the first place I think has been vindicated. I have taken them into this new structure.

  21. Would you accept that it seems to me to be an extraordinarily complicated structure that has been set up. It seems to have confused the Deputy Prime Minister and the more I looked at it the more I felt that the Byzantines would drool with envy.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think it is a lot simpler than it was before the reshuffle, for example. A large number of the units have an important function. Social Exclusion Unit, the Regional Coordination Unit and so on have moved out, so we now have a Cabinet Office which concentrates on its four principle functions. That is a great deal clearer. For example, I am looking at a team of people. I want someone who has an expertise in longer term thinking, that is a strategy unit. The delivery unit is there to take the public service agreements and monitor performance on all those. I think I need something which specialises in the application of IT to Government. Something which is about people; that is the Corporate Development group. Something which is there to give us the expertise we need about how the Civil Service relates to the wider public sector. That is the OPSR. Finally, I use—not own, because that belongs in the Treasury—some expertise about programme and project management. That is OGC. Those are my six components. If you are looking at what is the capability that a department should have, broadly those are the headings under which you examine whether they have the right people. Can they produce good strategic thinking? Where are they getting to on the use of e-Government? Those six blocks are the six blocks that I would want to have because they are the six headings under which I will, in a sense, interrogate departments about their capability.

  22. Thank you. Just one final question. In the papers I have read and the statements that have been issued I am not clear in my own mind, is the Government going to bring forward a Civil Service Bill?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It issued a paper on Monday or Tuesday this week reaffirming that.


  23. Indeed, but when your predecessor came to see us in the autumn of last year, he said it was all going to happen by Easter. In his words he said, "I have now secured the approval of the Prime Minister and we will see the fruits of this by Easter". It is now July and we have had no fruit at all.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) There is a commitment to a Bill subject to two caveats. One is the one Douglas Alexander made in the House earlier this week. He competes along with everyone else for Parliamentary time and place in the Queen's Speech. The other is that there are a lot of difficult issues underlying this and before you legislate you need to get to the bottom of everything. That process is going on even as we speak. This Committee and the Wicks Committee, working in parallel, are covering this ground. The work is going on to sort out the issues that are necessary. It is not as if it has been completely pigeon-holed.

  24. One final thing out of Sydney's question which is your rather alarming Windows analogy. Does this mean we are not to see what we now have as any kind of settled structure and that Windows 2003 is going to arrive and on we go?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Life is one of continuous improvement. You try and bring about change, but you do not constantly change the programme, you set yourselves some goals. One of the things I have to do when I start is to refresh that and create another programme which will last for my tenure. My successor will almost certainly do the same. There will always be changes. Our earlier conversation was indicating that change is necessary. You do not do it by constantly changing the brand day after day because you lose focus. You have to set out very clearly what are the things you are working on, get people to understand what they are and what the priorities are, work out a sequence for tackling them and then work through it. You are constantly working on change but you are working at any one time under a change programme which has an identifiable brand and structure.

  25. I am sorry to go on, but the thing that slightly worries me about this is that Mr Attlee, when he made his revolution after the war, did not have delivery units, he was not constantly examining the structure of Government every five minutes. When Mrs Thatcher did the same she was not doing the same thing. Harold McMillan made his name building 300,000 houses a year as housing minister; it was not through re-jigging delivery systems, no delivery units in sight. Why do Governments not just get on and do these things?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Actually our record of delivery has not been as good as it should be. There are a lot of programmes that have succeeded, but there are those that have failed: construction projects or IT projects, a litany of major failures. There are also the problems that we are facing, the very, very difficult wicked issues; they still have not responded to the policy approaches that we have applied to them. So we have to try new things and try to do them better and with more of a sense of drive and less emphasis on creating the policy, creating the legislation, assuming it will happen, and more of setting the objectives and monitoring performance against them and ensuring that they do happen.

Kevin Brennan

  26. The Microsoft analogy might be an unfortunate one really because the answer usually to the question "How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?" is "None, they just redefine darkness as the industry standard". So you might come to regret that particular analogy.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Just use any form of technical progress you care to think of then.

  27. Can I just ask you about—and I am not going to go over detail and history and so on, I am looking for lessons from all this—the whole question which, if it were a tabloid television programme, would be called "When Special Advisers Go Bad". The Jo Moore affair. What I am interested in really is not going over the events of what happened in that particular affair, but in what your view would be as Cabinet Secretary if you were faced with a similar sort of situation and what you would see your role as.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The first thing is to start with a proper framework. We have a code and a model contract and we will get refinements from the Wicks Enquiry. I think there is more to be done, and that is referred to in the document the Government produced early this week. When special advisers come in they historically just turn up on the coat- tails of a minister and that is it, they either sink or swim. Most of them actually swim but very little effort is made to train them, look at their performance, to get them to understand what their responsibilities are. Also in terms of the limits of their responsibilities what is the difference between working for a party. Working for the Labour Party is not, in my view, the same as working for the Labour Government. We have to get that understanding achieved. What are the responsibilities that come with the privilege of being funded by the tax payers, all the tax payers, not just those who voted for the winning party. Getting those understandings, working better and developing relationships. What would happen in a particular crisis when these relationships broke down will depend on the circumstances. A lot of it has to be building the relationships that reduce the chances of a breakdown. These are rare, but they are also not unique. The resignation of Nigel Lawson was in a sense a crisis about a relationship with special advisers; it is not unknown, but they do not happen often, once a decade or something.

  28. Obviously any system is there to deal with things that do not happen often, to deal with a crisis or the unusual event that arises. We already have, as you said, a special adviser's code of conduct. There are various rules and there can be more training and you can improve the level of understanding of people as to what their role is as special adviser. But what I am interested in is how the system copes when that goes wrong. When there is a special adviser who might be operating out of the Civil Service conduct, the special code of conduct. But nevertheless, because of the special nature of the way that special advisers are appointed, maintains the confidence of the Secretary of State. In those circumstances, how, in future, could we avoid the sort of mess that there was over the Jo Moore affair when in fact the only option that career civil servants felt they had to deal with that particular situation was to break the Civil Service code themselves by leaking to the press.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) This is a particular responsibility of the Permanent Secretary in a department and the Secretary of State's Private Secretary. They have to spot where these poor relationships are developing and be prepared to raise them with the Secretary of State: "You should be aware that there is a relationship here that is not working and you should either authorise me to take it up with the special adviser or undertake to do it yourself".

  29. But do you not think that there is a difficulty in that for the Permanent Secretary as well because they might think that in doing so that might poison their relationship with the Secretary of State. When Jonathan Baume from the First Division Association appeared before us he said that he felt in this particular instance the Permanent Secretary had failed to tackle the situation. That may be unfair. Maybe in a sense what he was doing was trying to sidestep—to use a further rugby analogy if you like—the situation because to tackle it head on in these circumstances is a nuclear option because it can potentially poison the extremely important relationship between the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It becomes a nuclear option if the situation is allowed to develop. It gets to the point where everyone is behaving badly. That is why you have to have a relationship with the special advisers and the Secretary of State which enable you to bring these things up much earlier and when people are less entrenched in their positions. There is a problem. If it really does get to the point where people are not trustful of one another you get dysfunctional behaviour. You have to work much earlier to try to diffuse that.

  30. Do you think that senior civil servants like permanent secretaries should ever make public statements about these sorts of events?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It depends whether it is in the public interest to have an account. Richard Mottram gave this account of this event and I think it was helpful for people to know the sequence of what had happened. I do not think people should, in a sense, just off their own bat say "I am going to speak out". I think there should be an agreement that it would actually be helpful to get this thing recorded.

  31. Who should agree that it would be helpful? Should it be as a result of just "chatting around", to quote the Permanent Secretary, that these statements are made? Or should there be a procedure by which any statement, which you said under certain circumstances, might be appropriate should be authorised. If you were facing this situation as Cabinet Secretary what procedure would you follow?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) This is back to a caveat in my position. The issues you are raising I am accepting as a problem. I am also saying that I do not have the specific answers about how does the kind of complaints procedure—whistle-blow, whatever you would like to call it—work. We have those for the regular civil servants; they go up through permanent secretaries to the Cabinet Secretary. I think we could do more to explore this in the special adviser world. But I have not done it yet.

  32. There is a serious constitutional issue, is there not, here, in terms of senior civil servants, permanent secretaries making public statements. I am interested in your view of what would be appropriate and what would be the method by which it ought to be authorised, if at all.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think it would be unfortunate if the statement was, in a sense, competitive—one account from the Secretary of State and one from the Permanent Secretary which would then contradict him publicly. That was not actually the case in this. What Richard did was set out a sequence of events which was helpful to Parliament and helpful to people when judging the events. If it was done in anger, people saying "I must go on the record" then I think you have a difficult and dangerous situation and you must try to avoid that.

  33. Just to try to pin this down, would that not normally constitutionally be the role of the Secretary of State to give that account rather than the Permanent Secretary?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) You might ask the Permanent Secretary to do it.

  34. It would be appropriate if asked by the Secretary of State for the Permanent Secretary to do it?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not live and breathe this particular incident. I do not think there is any sense in which the statement from the Permanent Secretary was in defiance or an attempt to contradict. I think it was recognised that it would be useful to set out an account of the steps that had been taken

  35. I am not going to pursue who it was because I am sure you were not there, I am sure you do not know. We have tried to pursue these matters before, it is just that it seems such a constitutional novelty that I would have thought it would be something that your mind would be fixed upon.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am conscious of the fact that there is an issue and if you have a special adviser as a temporary civil servant—but nevertheless is a civil servant, then he has the same obligations about conduct, for example, how you treat your colleagues, how you use public money. But on the other hand the Permanent Secretary has not appointed that person; there is an ambiguity. What do you do if there is something which, if it were done by a permanent civil servant, you would intervene on in a disciplinary way, how do you go about that? The obvious thing is that you seek to resolve it with the Secretary of State and in most cases that will work. But you are saying can we do more to provide for the case where it does not.


  36. Just let us get to the end of this. As you describe it, you have a special adviser who is causing trouble. He does not understand the boundaries. Causing problems with the department. The Permanent Secretary knows about this. He goes, as you say, to the Secretary of State and says that there is a real problem. The Secretary of State then says that he has absolute confidence in that special adviser, there is no difficulty at all. Then what happens?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The Secretary of State may well recognise that while doing a good job for the Secretary of State he is nevertheless causing grief and upset with other colleagues in the department. I think the Secretary of State would be quite prepared to take that up with the special adviser concerned. That is the best way to get it resolved.

  37. Then we have gone round in a circle. We are back where we started from. It has not resolved anything.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) What do you do if this does not work?

  38. We have an unresolved issue.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) We do have an unresolved issue, yes.

  39. So how is it to be resolved under the existing arrangements?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It is not absolutely clear. The main thing is to try to resolve it as far as possible and if the Permanent Secretary finds he is getting nowhere with the Secretary himself he has the right to take it to the Cabinet Secretary and ask for the Cabinet Secretary's help in trying to resolve it. I think in most cases you will get quite a long way through that route.


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