Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)



  460. We all want to see value-for-money. Can I finally ask you about your obligations, you have a huge spread of responsibilities sitting on all of those Cabinet committees, the responsibility for transport, better regulation, civil contingencies and the Duchy of Lancaster. Can I ask you, how much time do you spend on your Duchy of Lancaster work?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I was at a board meeting earlier this week and spent a few hours there. Of course I have papers to read, but it is a very competently run organisation with a very expert board there. I also have duties concerning about 4,000 magistrates in the north west of England, so there is a bit of time spent in the appointment of those magistrates and the retirement of the magistrates.

  461. Are you still the only government minister who can fly a little flag from the government car?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I was not aware of that.

  462. Jack Cunningham used to fly it!
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I will be there at the end of the Commonwealth Games at Manchester as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—paying for my own tickets, I should say—and then in Preston Town Hall the following day when Her Majesty goes into the north west on her tour.


  463. At the moment millions of people are flying flags on their cars, you are entitled have a flag on your car!
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Not for football I suspect!

Sir Sydney Chapman

  464. I just wanted to return, if only finally, to two issues in particular to do with the Civil Service Bill and the Ombudsman. In the House of Lords exactly a week ago you replied to a question on the Civil Service Bill by saying, "the government's position on legislation for the Civil Service is as set out in their submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, copies of which are in the libraries of the House". In the cause of plain English why did you not just say, a Civil Service Bill will be introduced in the next session of Parliament?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Because I thought people might be interested in reading the report into which so much effort had gone and I was drawing your attention to that. I think the submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which the Cabinet Office made was surely welcome given the uncertainty that your Committee is exhibiting in some areas in this matter today.
  (Mr Alexander) It might assist the Committee, on point 15 in response the government agreed that a Civil Service Bill should be used to put the position of special advisers on a statutory. . .

  465. You are putting in the strongest possible bid for a legislative slot in the next session of Parliament?
  (Mr Alexander) As l say, we are not able to discuss the contents in advance of the Queen's speech.

  466. May I quote you saying in the House exactly a fortnight ago in reply to the question on the reform of the ombudsman system, "the government have made clear that they intend to bring forward legislation to replace the existing arrangements with a more unified ombudsman body when Parliamentary time allows". Is that going to be allowed in the next session of Parliament? Again, assure us that you are putting in the strongest possible bid.
  (Mr Alexander) As I said, the government is fully committed to that.

  467. Moving on from that, last year when the Deputy Prime Minister came to this committee he said that as Deputy Prime Minister he provided the strong political force that is necessary in the Cabinet Office. Now that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and personally the Deputy Prime Minister has moved is there still a strong political force in the Cabinet Office?
  (Mr Alexander) As Gus has made clear to this Committee, as Ministers within the Cabinet Offices we report directly to the Prime Minister. I am certainly confident that we are able to secure the support of colleagues in terms of taking forward the work of the department, the office of the Deputy Prime Minister is reflected in the many responsibilities, which John Prescott made his job and his other areas of policy responsibility. I am certainly confident that we can take forward the work of the department like colleagues have done previously.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) If I may add, Chairman, I hope you have taken from my description earlier of our role that we were neither prefectorial neither were we enforcing, so we did not need this force of weight that seemed to be implied in your earlier judgment. We were acting collaboratively and the approach which we took in addressing the problems of other departments was one which was proving increasingly productive.

  468. Just as a slight comment on the question of Parliamentary time in the Commons being halved—and I thought Mr Alexander gave a very good answer—but I cannot help reflecting that had he still got half an hour to answer questions in the House, albeit once a month rather than once a week, it would be good preparation to become the next Prime Minister, but three.
  (Mr Alexander) That is one question I am not going to answer. I would say on the basis of my very limited experience as a minister speaking on Cabinet Office responsibilities that Parliament is able to scrutinise in 15 minutes, so I hesitate to think what it would be like after a full half hour.

  Mr Brennan: I believe we will have a Labour Prime Minister in ten years!

  Sir Sydney Chapman: I did say about three!

Mr Brennan

  469. Not for this purpose, but I was reading some Yeats earlier on, and I will quote you,"The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world". Is that what this is all about, the Prime Minister is the falconer, if you like, he is really looking to extend his remit right across government, that he believes unless there is a powerful, strong centre with a Prime Minister with a firm grip on things that things will fall apart.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I do not think that is the case and you are probably aware of the context in which Yeats wrote that poem. I will not speculate on who the `rough beast' might be. I believe that the Prime Minister's instinct, again from my managerial experience, is a very sure one, in that he wants to understand in each of the most important sectors of this government, of this business, how it works and how he can help. That is a question that Douglas and I constantly ask ourselves. If things are working well then all my experience is leave well enough alone, try not to interfere. If Michael Barber is doing a good job in the Delivery Unit I will not be coming in and having everything explained to me and slowing it all down. You try to work with a very light touch and you have to know when to intervene. I think that the Prime Minister displays a very sure instinct in that, which is obviously one that becomes educated over time. He has been working through the problems of government for the past five years and he made no secret in his discussion with the Liaison Committee that he wanted a strong centre. Now, a strong centre is not necessarily a big centre because in relative terms we are small compared to the Germans, the French or the Americans. Yes, we want a strong centre, we want to try and concentrate expertise and we want to access the brightest and the best if they are prepared to come and work for us, and no apologies for that.

  470. Do you ever worry at all that all of these targets, the way that the tentacles reach out, might actually ultimately amount to, target-itis is a phrase that has been used, and that the whole purpose of government is skewed, if you like, towards meeting targets and that something of the flexibility, innovation and the ability to run with the ball in the right direction is lost in the overwhelming need to meet the targets?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We have to be very alert to the threat that you describe, people must not become just fixated on targets; that is why it is so important to look to the four principles of public service reform that we have been trying to get people to understand. One of those, the third principle, it is to try and increase the flexibility and incentives there, to devolve authority and to open up the ability to innovate. Call it what you like, there are words around like "earned autonomy", but what we have tried to do is become increasingly more flexible. Where organisations are working well the centre should be pulling back and letting them get on with it, but on the other hand you must be able to monitor and you must have high national standards because you cannot tolerate chronic failure. That has been tolerated for too long and the lives of millions of our children and our fellow citizens, particularly in deprived areas, have been blighted by the under performance of public services. This is a mission that we are on. We want to give more freedom to the frontline and they can earn that freedom very readily, we believe, by increased performance. It is one of the most difficult things in life to try and drive change through organisations.

  471. Is this what they used to call "loose-tight".
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Yes, there is an element of that. There had to be a fairly tight grip in areas where there was manifest under performance. As people begin to change the way that they do things, and perhaps new leadership comes in, and new resources. Most importantly of all, it begins to come together. We made it clear that our investment is linked to reform and we expect people to understand that message, that we have created 150,000 new jobs, extra jobs in the public sector since 1997 and there will, no doubt, be hundreds and thousands more in the course of the years to come. That is the important thing, that the investment the Chancellor has prescribed is also matched by reform and we hope that the work-forces in the public sector understand that message and will work with us to try and achieve what will be good for all of us.
  (Mr Alexander) I think Gus has spoken with eloquence about the Cabinet Office but I think the other work against the kind of development you suggest by your question is the reality of political life, which is events and changes happen and actually therefore it is vital and indeed incontestable, I would argue, that the role of ministers endures, which is to exercise judgment in any changing environments and circumstances. One of the things which intrigued me in terms of the evidence that you received from previous witnesses, was the clarity in the way they asserted the fact, that of course they were able to give advice in terms of support but ultimately there is a position whereby a minister as a secretary of state is charged with the responsibility of taking forward the government's ambitions in what is necessarily, but not always, a changing environment. My recollection from Yeats is there is also a line about "good men lose all conviction"; actually what you hold on to is all of your convictions and your values, which you take forward, but some of those values have been translated into policy outcomes and you come to require the kind of support and monitoring that a modern government demands.

  472. That is very interesting. A part of that theory and approach generally would be that you are tight on vision, on what the Government is trying to achieve—and everybody should understand what the centre wants and what the Government is trying to achieve—but then you are loose about trusting people to get on with delivering that. We visited the Netherlands recently and one thing that struck some of us is that they are going down some of these roads we are going down in this country and they look towards the UK in many ways as an example. One of the questions we put to them was why because the only target you want to know is that the public are satisfied, by and large, with the public services that are being provided.
  (Mr Alexander) I agree with you. The danger is that we become overly managerial in our description of what is taking place. I would not assert the centre as being in terms of where it wants to go. I would say, echoing the words of the Prime Minister, that the present Government were very clear where they wanted to go in 2001. It was an instruction to deliver and in that sense the opportunity that is given to us and the privilege of serving as ministers is to take forward a mandate received by the British public. In that sense, I see the work of not just the Cabinet Office but ministries across Whitehall as being imbued by that political reality on an on-going basis. The danger of management theory discrete from those realities is that it can sometimes make more complicated the reality than is in fact the case, which is that there is a group of people who feel very clearly that they received a mandate and were elected on that mandate and are determined to implement the changes and reform necessary to secure the outcomes, which is ultimately what people are interested in.

  473. Being brutally honest about this, do you think that any of the targets that the Government has set in recent years may have been badly designed and that actually they may have invoked the law of unintended consequences in some ways? As a result of being badly designed, if you like, they have resulted in resources being skewed towards outcomes that you do not really want to achieve.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) To go back to where we started, I think there is an evolutionary process. You might take a manifesto commitment from 1997 and, let's say, you take waiting lists and the numbers of people on them, at that stage, coming into government with that kind of mandate behind it, it might seem a good way of driving change through the system and using that as a target. As the years go by, the process begins to tell you that there is an even better way of doing this and therefore you move into waiting times. It does not necessarily mean that you wasted all the effort you put in in trying to reduce the lists.
  (Mr Alexander) Let me give you another example of exactly that kind of evolutionary approach within the Office of the e-Envoy and now e-transformation, the 2005 target that was set some time back after an e-Cabinet by government which was to get government services on-line by to 2005. That has been a vitally important discipline and action obliging departments to take forward that work and to make sure physically they are on-line. We are not there yet but that work carries on. Of course, our thinking develops, as does the thinking of every other organisation in the country trying to e- enable itself, to recognising that if there is a service which is on line which nobody chooses to use because it is badly designed or not friendly to the customer or whatever other reason, then it is actually of very limited utility in term of the outcomes I was describing earlier. Of course, you have got to start saying what is the way that we can start to e-transform rather than simply saying you can fill in a tax return on-line but we are going to make it a complicated exercise to undertake. In that sense Gus's description of the general in terms of it being an evolutionary process is reflected also in the specific, that there are some very specific examples of where that process of learning continues in government.

  474. Can I ask you on one other thing and I do not want to pursue this for too long because time is pressing. I know part of your work is e- transformation and so on in government. This may not come under your responsibility at all but I would welcome your opinion on it. Are you worried at all about the use of e-mail in government? We had some exchanges on this in this Committee about e-mail and the public record and what is on the public record and what forms part of the historical record and what does not and what should civil servants and special advisers use e-mail for and whether or not they should follow Joseph Kennedy's old maxim "never write anything down that you would not like to see on the front page of the New York Times". Has any serious thought been given to any of these areas?
  (Mr Alexander) I think he also said never have a conversation if a nod will do. My sense is that there is a genuine question there which is not unique at all to the public sector but more generally in terms of how we communicate. Consistent with some of the earlier questions about Sir Richard Wilson, there was a very interesting report before a Committee of this House previously on that where he says the manner in which we communicate and the fact that we write down an e-mail in a couple of lines in perhaps more haste than you would writing a longer letter is a change in terms of the psychology of work which a range of different organisations are coping with in different ways. I appreciate there are very specific examples (which I have absolutely no interest in raising before this Committee) of e-mails in government. I think that is why it is very important in terms of the processes that are put in place in terms of individual privacy and for freedom of information across the piece that government has an awareness of issues that are emerging. If you want a specific example where the work of the Strategy Unit has been useful, it has been useful in terms of anticipating some of the questions around not just e-enabling specifically but the kind of e-world into which we are moving. It seems to me that would not have fallen naturally to an obvious Whitehall department and I would suggest that is perhaps a good example of the kind of forward thinking that government could usefully access and benefit from and then push into the policy-making process.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I should say that as a Government clearly we regret some of the e-mails that were circulated. The Department for Education and Skills have made it clear that they have taken action to ensure that it does not happen again. I worked for 30 years in private business under an Act that demanded impartiality in terms of programming so it comes as no difficulty for me to hope that the same standards apply across the Civil Service. We genuinely believe as Ministers that the impartiality of the Civil Service is very important. You have half a million civil servants and in any trade people have their own dark humour at times and their own shorthand. I am sure if you are a soldier or a doctor or journalist you have got your own shorthand in terms of how colleagues talk to one another that you do not want too easily surfaced. We are now dealing with a form of communication where it can be surfaced, and quite properly so, so people have to be more disciplined.
  (Mr Alexander) This is not challenge unique to the British executive or to the British parliament. I was reading in the paper this morning that the White House has traced back the fact that someone in the executive office in the White House was accessing the Britney Spears web site and that formal investigation is now suggesting it was a secret service officer within the White House. I am glad to say that is not something for which I understand the Cabinet Office is either responsible or guilty but it does suggest that it is a challenge for a range of different organisations.

  Kevin Brennan: I would not research too carefully the history of some civil servants' web site access.

  Mr Trend: Following that Sir Richard Wilson.

  Chairman: Britney Spears?

Mr Trend

  475. He had thought about the question of e-mails very carefully. He said when he writes an e-mail he prints it out—no doubt so he can put it in a box marked "open in 30 years' time". Is the Cabinet Office still in charge of official history? How is this going to affect archive material?
  (Mr Alexander) As I recollect it, he told the Committee that there was on-going work within the Cabinet Office given the transformation that is taking place from paper-based offices to an electronic system. If it would be helpful I could furnish that information that he gave the Committee so that you have that.

  476. I would be fascinated by that.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I imagine that Sir David Omand will be able to illuminate you on that at some point in the future.


  477. Two very quick things to wrap it up because we have taken up a lot of your time. Listening to you, Gus, if you were running an organisation and somebody from somewhere else started to tell you what your targets had got to be, this would be offensive to you as a manager, would it not?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No. Companies pay very large sums of money to have outsiders come in and explain to them what they might be doing next; they are called consultants. I have some scepticism of that process but surely—

  478. Whatever the centre is, Gus, it is not a consultant.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No, but we are all working with the same company. There are half a million of us working for the same company in government and if one department, the Treasury, the finance department, tells you what to do over in the HR department or the manufacturing department, then that is a perfectly proper internal debate.

  479. That is a good go but let me try it again. You said, rightly, that we should not tolerate failure. You could say that you should not tolerate difference, which is a quite another question. By what right does the centre have to say "we shall determine the outcome measures for every public body in the land and we will only allow you to determine the process measures to secure the outcomes." That would be offensive to you running any organisation, would it not?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Yes, but what we have is a process of devolution that we are encouraging across the public sector. What we are asking for is that the geographical lottery comes to an end because all citizens are paying their taxes. I did not say we cannot tolerate failure, because failure is inevitable if you have innovation and risk. What I think I said was we cannot tolerate chronic failure. In other words you cannot let it go on and on without something being done because it is the right of citizens to have the same level of service, we believe, wherever they are in the country in health or in education or in law and order. The systems that we are bringing in, we are trying to bring in, in collaboration with the people delivering those services and in a process which will increasingly give them the autonomy to make their own decisions, but we hope that the outcomes will increasingly be standardised across the country and be higher than they are now.


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