Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)




  80. Just one short question arising from Gordon's first questions. It would be very nice, just for the sake of history, to get a short answer. You have worked at close quarters with three prime ministers now. You have seen cabinets at close quarters for a generation.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes.

  81. Everyone says that this beast has changed over this time.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes.

  82. Can you, hand on heart, tell students now that we have a system of cabinet government?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes, we do. It is not the same as Attlee ran it. I can give you one observation on it which is that I have never seen the Cabinet under this Prime Minister in action. I have been in on meetings with Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but I am a bit short of evidence here.

  83. In that case we may have to have this conversation again at a later date.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes, we may.

Brian White

  84. Michael Heseltine once described the Cabinet Office as the most dysfunctional department—
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Sorry, who did?

  85. Michael Heseltine. Previous cabinet ministers have had similar observations. In welcoming the changes you made, can you just explain to me whether the changes you have made will mean that you are going to have to get involved in the micro-management of other departments, and how are you actually going to do that? If you are not going to do that, what exactly is the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the departments going to be?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The first thing I am trying to do is take the various units and try to get them to work as a group and the heads of those units and I will meet regularly. Secondly, to take the heads of those units and make sure that they work more closely with the Civil Service Management Board so they will not be seen as those people up at Head Office causing all this grief and we are the poor victims. Thirdly, to look at the remit of each of these units and ask is there some tidying up to be done? Are there certain things which would be better given to someone else? And to eliminate any overlaps. I have tidied up the remits in a small way. Then the units came together as the Delivery and Reform team. Then you are asking the question "How do we interact with the departments?" We have a system and it starts from the Public Service Agreements in which departments are given a departmental expenditure limit and they agree to some objectives and some targets. In any organisation the centre—in any commercial organisation or the Health Service—would then try to see if this is happening, and this is a particular function of the Delivery Unit. They have a methodology which says "If you want to get to this outcome by 2004, the first thing is to work out a trajectory. What is a realistic path for achieving that? Secondly, what needs to be done and, very importantly, in what sequence?" Then it writes up in the so-called stocktaking meetings a report of where we are, are we moving in the right directions, what problems we have encountered and what are the things we need to address. I think that is not dissimilar from the way a major corporate headquarters would work. What happens when you identify something that is not working? You have always got the choice. You can say, "I'll take it over"—it is a very easy instinct and when you are in a hurry you fall prey to it more often than when you are not—as opposed to saying "Let's identify what it is and I want you to put this right and I have some ideas about how you should put it right and I will work with you to do it". My kind of instinct is that I like to work with people rather than saying that I am going to set up some other mechanism as a replacement. If you set up replacement mechanisms you then create problems with coordination and you also demoralise the people that are already on the ground. If the people who are already on the ground are not good enough you can either give the job to someone else, bring in someone else to do it or build them up. I like to be a kind of builder-upper really. But in some cases you do have to take a decision that what you have there is not good enough and you either replace the people or basically you replace the organisation.

  86. I am interested in this interaction of key performance indicators, PSA's and about the fact that one of the reasons for lack of delivery is that people are trying to achieve performance indicators and they are actually distracting them from delivery. I am wondering what your proposals are to deal with the plethora of performance indicators that there are in the system.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The Treasury invented the Public Service Agreement concept in 1998. A very large number of objectives were set. When it returned to the exercise in 2000 it recognised that there were too many. It responded to this by saying "We must have a hierarchy". For example, Health is told to cut waiting lists and pay bills on time; these are a different order of magnitude. One is an outcome thing and the other is a management target. We need to sift those out so we now have PSA's as the higher level objectives and then the Service Delivery Agreements. The next thing is to say, "Do you have a set of targets which you take absolutely literally? The only thing you must do is hit this target and that is all we care about." I think you have to develop in people the sense that the target is meant to describe the outcome. If you are successful, running a successful organisation, this target will improve. But the recognition that you must not do that by either dumping problems onto someone else, working only in the areas where you can make improvements and neglecting hard to deal with cases, or just being so focussed that you will not cooperate, that is part of the development, to get a greater sense that in delivering your target you also have to have regard to the wider context; it is not simply that target and nothing else.

  87. I will give you an example of the target of the whole of the Government's services to be available electronically by 2005, which was a very good way of being a catalyst for change. We have now reached the situation where a number of people are putting their existing systems into web format without actually transforming the relationship between that service and the system. So transaction analysis is not happening because of the pressure to achieve the target to get something on line by 2005. Should you not be changing targets to actually reflect the changes in the world outside?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is a very good example. We wanted to give a push to everyone to get into the electronic age, but it is recognised that there is not much merit in any department saying "All our services are electronic, but only about 1 per cent of the business is actually done through them". Increasingly the emphasis will be on the percentage of use that is actually made of this. There you need to look in a more differentiated way at those services where you really want to push on, so effectively the electronic version of this service becomes the dominant way. For example, the filing of payment of taxes by businesses, the filing of returns, tenders, you get to the point where you could say "We will only do this business on the web". And you will push for that. There are other areas, particularly when you are dealing with the public, when the public may value still being able to walk down to the post office and transact whatever it is they want to transact. And there you would not push for exclusive change. But simply having an electronic version of something that no-one really uses or a web site that is good on information but never develops into being a transactions web site, there is not a lot of point in that. We are aware of that difference and, as I say, usage will become a bigger feature when we specify what we want to do.

  88. I found your paper and the new structure very informative. But there is one thing that confused me, which is what is the relationship between the Office of Public Service Reform and your Reform Unit?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The job of OPSR is really to find new models of delivery across the whole Public Sector, to look at, in particular, ways in which the departments relate to other tiers of Government. It has done a study, for example, on how does DTLR (as it was at the time and is now ODPM), how does the local government directorate of that department (whatever it is called) react with and control local government. There is also a function in the area of deregulation, where you can make it do an audit of regulations, but ultimately the solution is to find a relationship of delivering a service which does not rely as heavily on control. OPSR is the part of the team where those ideas are developed.

  89. One of the criticisms of the Civil Service is that it brings in management techniques from the Private Sector just as the Private Sector are discarding those techniques. What are you going to do to ensure that does not happen under your watch?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think make sure that what we bring in is actually current best practice in the Private Sector. The Office of Government Commerce I think is an example of doing that. They have brought in, for example, two concepts, one is Gateways. A major project is examined at a series of stages and you do not move on through the later stages unless you have basically satisfied the questions raised earlier. That is current practice in the Private Sector. There is supplier management where you know who your major suppliers are across the whole of the group and you conduct a relationship specifically with them. There have been swings in the pendulum of centralisation, decentralisation, contracting out and the idea of conglomerates and then focussing on the core business. You are right, we can follow at a kind of five year lag, but I think we have enough practitioners coming in now from the front line to prevent us doing that again.

  90. One of the criticisms of the e-Envoy was that it had an awful lot of people doing projects that were in house in the Civil Service but very few—in fact only Richard Barrington—at the time from outside industry fighting the industries corner. Presumably you are going to try to change that balance.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think they inherited some people but they also brought in a lot of people. Andrew Pinder himself comes in from outside, although earlier in his career he had worked at the Inland Revenue so he is the ideal combination for us.

Mr Lyons

  91. After 2 September we are into a phase of delivery, delivery, delivery. Are you going to give us a pledge card on 2 September of what you are going to achieve.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am not going to give you a pledge card, but the statement which the Chancellor will make in a few day's time on the Spending Review is a kind of pledge card. That is saying what the Government is committing itself to achieve on the major services. We are pledged to do our utmost to deliver the targets under those PSA agreements.

  92. And we will all be very clear—and the public will be very clear—about what those targets are?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes. Each time we reset these targets I think our aim is to make them more meaningful, more relevant, closer to the outcomes we want and less to inputs. I think we want to get to the point where we look back at 1998 when we started this process and say that that was all pretty rudimentary. We can really see that what we are operating in the three years hence is an order better than we were working with when we started this process.

  93. Better outcomes?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Both. I think that the better specification of what it is we are trying to achieve the better outcomes will materialise. We will get closer this time to producing the delivery plan which backs each PSA. In the past you had the PSA and then you would spend months and months and months deciding what is the delivery plan for that. We are trying to get to the point where these will follow within a matter of weeks rather than months from the time that the target is set.

  94. How does that mechanically get from you to the people who deliver that change at the front line? For example, Health.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Health is one of the four of the Prime Minister's priorities and those four departments (which cover about 17 targets) are effectively in a kind of intensive care. They are the subject of stock taking meetings which the Prime Minister holds every six or eight weeks and there he goes through them one by one, brings in health ministers, the senior officials in Health, the special advisers, the leadership team in the Department. He has a brief from the Delivery Unit setting out where progress is being made, where it is falling behind, some diagnosis of what is not happening that should be happening. Then there is a discussion. Then that team will go away and take action to get back on track.

  95. How are we then to be informed of the stock taking decisions, the failures, the successes?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is reported annually in departmental reports. I suppose that is the principal way, but a lot of these targets are, in fact, national statistics, like crime waiting lists, like inflation or the public finances. They are published as national statistics and you can see for yourself whether they are on track.

  96. Surely you would accept that there might be occasions when you feel departmental people are doing well but the public perception is something different. Would you disagree with that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The department then has to, using its communications skills, get that message across. Very often it is the public that does not think it is going well. Sometimes it is the people working in that service and you have to change people's perceptions, you have to identify successes and show people that there are successes. If you are to do that successfully you have to be frank about where things are falling behind. If all your geese are swans then you will not get believed. You have to be prepared to set out the position on both sides of the account.

  97. Looking to your letter of 24 June and the charts, Where does Lord Birt come in? Can you tell me that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) We had a structure called the PIU—the Performance and Innovation Unit—and the FSU. It was all serviced by the same group of people working under Geoff Mulgan. There is a single function here and that single function is strategy and policy analysis. But it could take different forms. It could be longer term strategy work, it could be cross cutting studies of the kind the PIU is doing. Or it could be a kind of strategic audit which is where do we, as a Government, hope to be in this area and where are we? It then works in different ways. Sometimes it works with highly consultative seminars, green papers, et cetera. Sometimes it works by working with a department producing advice for the secretary of state. Sometimes departments may just ask for a written report on this or some advice. The simplest thing is to say that there is one unit, it works in these different modes, it produces these different outcomes, but there is not really a difference between the FSU and the PIU. While we are at it the name has been changed because the Performance Innovation Unit sounded as though it was something to do with delivery and performance so I have persuaded them to adopt a name which is closer to what they actually do. John Birt is described as Strategy Adviser to the Prime Minister and has been since the last election. He works on a number of subjects as requested by the Prime Minister.

  98. Blue-skies?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) They tend to be the longer term issues, yes.

Mr Heyes

  99. My experience of bureaucracies is that the bureaucrats spend most of their time and energy squabbling and falling out with one another. Being very cynical about the documents you presented to us, it seems to me that this is a recipe for precisely that, that you will spend your time refereeing turf wars between this collective that you have working for you. How are you going to stop that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think the way I look at it is a way of trying to prevent that happening. The last thing I want to do is spend the next three years refereeing turf wars. That would be absolute misery. The aim is to get this group to work together. I will agree with each of them an understanding of what is the remit of this group and what is it that over—in this case—the rest of this financial year you are going to be working on and what resources we have agreed to give you. If it turns out that people are basically trying to compete with one another at that point, I will say that we have to agree that this piece of work is going to be done in this unit and not in that one.


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