Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 618 - 619)




  618. Could I on behalf of the Committee welcome our witness this morning, Wendy Thomson, who is Head of the new Office of Public Services Reform. We are delighted to have you along to help us with our enquiries. Perhaps you would like to kick off by saying a few things and then we will ask some questions.

  (Dr Thomson) Good morning to everyone. Thank you very much for the invitation to make an opening statement which I will make very brief. The memorandum submitted to the Committee sets out some key points about the Office of Public Services Reform. I would like to highlight the main issues briefly. The role of the Office is to advise the Prime Minister on how the Government's commitment to radical reform of public services can be taken forward. This demonstrates a determination to provide excellent public services and therefore to focus attention on services being designed around the customer. OPSR's work is very committed to helping public service organisations, including the Civil Service, local government and the wider public services, to enhance their capacity and competence to deliver improved services. There are several strands to this work and all of it is being undertaken in collaboration with others, particularly with other parts of the centre in Whitehall departments. We are working with the departments to develop the reform agenda and a clear understanding about how the community customers and the four principles of reform can help bring improved services, and I will come back and say briefly something about the principles. We are really wanting to help by working with the departments to ensure that policy making and delivery are better informed by information about customers and their views. Whatever other measures are used to assess service quality, the experience of the public in my view is absolutely crucial. We have also been working with the DTLR on the Local Government White Paper to embed the four principles of reform across local government and we will be helping the DTLR in the implementation of the White Paper. Strengthening the capacity and competence of the Civil Service to deliver public services reform is another very important strand of our work. It builds very much on the achievements of the Civil Service reform programme and departments' own substantial reform agendas. There are three contributions to help bring about the huge difference that underpins delivery. First, we have a project to improve programme and project delivery in departments. Secondly, we have a change management programme for enhancing departments' capacity for higher performance and third, we are doing a review of policy on executive agencies, which is sponsored by the Cabinet Office with the Treasury. That should report in February. In all activities the delivery of excellent public services designed around the customer is what is central. This has been articulated around four principles of reform. They are, first, setting the framework of national standards, inspection and accountability across the country, and in practice this means rebuilding and developing services so that they meet the diverse needs of individuals, offering greater choice but with universal high standards. The second principle is the devolution of freedom to front line professionals and local leaders to innovate and develop services. The third is more recognition of the work and responsibility that is being taken at the front line. The Government is investing to create the sort of flexibility and rewards that will create these centres for better performance. The fourth principle is concerned with providing more choice for service users. This is perhaps a more innovative aspect of the reform programme but it does mean giving users more information and, with more information, more choice. We have seen the role that the voluntary sector and the private sector can play in this respect. These are the four principles and they are really all designed around the customer. They are not new. As someone who has been in public service for longer than I should say, 20 years or more, we have always been working to these sorts of wishes to provide services for the public but we have new ways of doing so in the present environment and those are the ones we are wishing to promote.

  619. Thank you very much indeed for that. Of course you are particularly interesting to ask here because of your background in local authorities and then the Audit Commission and now in this job. It is all getting very complicated though, is it not? Not only have we got these seven principles of public life we have got to remember but we have also got the five economic tests and now we have got the four principles of public services reform. Politics used to be simpler than this. I am sure we want to ask you about some of these principles soon. Can you tell me in a nutshell though what was the problem to which your office is a remedy?
  (Dr Thomson) I do not think there is so much a problem as much as a recognition of the increasing challenge that public services face. The pace of change is never sufficient to meet rising public expectations, and government, local and central, is increasingly being challenged to escalate the pace of change. If you are out there providing services, as I have been for many years, you have to acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of change going on and a lot of services are improving, but you are also still very much aware that that is not necessarily good enough and that we have to keep up innovation and creativity and finding new ways of accelerating change. I do not think it is so much a problem as a recognition of an important area that needed proper attention at the heart of government.

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