Examination of Witness (Questions 620
THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER 2001
620. Presumably this Government came to think
that the mechanisms that it had in place for its first period
of office were not adequate for the task of delivery; otherwise
it would not have invented new units. Obviously you have taken
over the Civil Service reform as well. The modernising of government
programme seems to have disappeared somewhere. Clearly there was
an analysis of what was going wrong with the existing set-up to
produce the new ones; that is really what I was getting at.
(Dr Thomson) My response to that is that the challenge
changes with time and the modernisation programme is still very
much at the heart of what the Government is doing in public services.
You can see this in the Local Government White Paper. It is very
much building on the same principles and objectives of modernisation.
It is just that now delivery becomes the key. The first phase
is getting an awareness of what modernisation might be. Now we
are down to delivery which is much more specific, so there are
different tasks, different arrangements. I think that has been
fairly typical of government over decades, to continue reform
of organisations to deliver the new task.
621. This is the obstetric view of government
that we have come to know and love and no doubt we shall ask you
about this. Over your vast experience of public service can you
tell us in general termsand I have learned the language
nowwhat you think the main drivers are of reform?
(Dr Thomson) I think in the public service that sense
of service is an important driver to motivate people who work
in the public service area. There is a great commitment to serving
the public well. That, when it is working at its best, is a huge
motivational force. I also think that within government one needs
to connect that wish to serve the public with the policy objectives
that the Government has set the nation as a whole. That is another
key driver. Government is another big organisation and I guess
in a managerial sense you need to turn those high aspirations
into practical arrangements for delivering, to use the language
you have picked up. From the centre of government you need to
communicate clearly what you are trying to do and that is an important
driver. People need to have the resources and that is an important
motivator, and you also need to have the systems and infrastructure
to be able to do the job well.
622. Let us look at this in practical terms
for a moment. Knowing all that, which bits of the public service
have been exemplars of change and which ones do you think are
causing most difficulty?
(Dr Thomson) In my experience there is rarely all
good or all bad in any particular service. There are examples
of excellence in all of our public services. If you look through
education, I have worked at a local level improving education
services and you see in areas across the country examples of excellent
service, high achievement amongst pupils, even in very difficult
circumstances, and other areas where perhaps circumstances are
not so difficult where less is being delivered. To me what that
says to us is that there is a huge amount of learning that we
can do and best practice we can exchange from where people are
doing things well and where there is still room for a lot more
to be done. Inevitably the examples are always made of where services
are doing poorly. It is very difficult to get the attention of
the public on where services are going very well. I think that
is just one of those great dilemmas that public service managers
live with. You feel it is not always fair but it is just the way
public attention is focused. One unhappy customer is worth a lot
more than 98 happy ones.
623. You talk about consumers a lot and you
did in your introduction just now. There was not much about citizens.
Are we just all consumers now? Whatever happened to the idea of
us being citizens which is rather a different concept, is it not?
(Dr Thomson) I think the two are both important concepts.
Perhaps I have become used to using the term "customer"
because to me it signalled an important change in attitude amongst
public services towards the people they serve. Certainly in the
space of my career I have seen people move away from treating
the public and citizens in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. As people
have learned to expect more from their public services and be
treated as having rights and entitlements, which are rights and
entitlements of citizens really, we have signalled the change
of how we treat them by calling them customers and then we start
treating them differently. People have choices, people have the
right to be treated with courtesy. It is perhaps a signal of a
change of attitude rather than anything that in any way undermines
a sense of citizenship.
624. Let me put it to you differently. I think
it is more than that. I think it just gives up on traditional
notions of political accountability. I think now the only one
that is left is accountability to the centre. You said it should
deliver these things and if it does not it is booted out. The
notion that different communities, different parts of the country
with a different electoral basis, can choose different things
from the centre, all that has been abandoned now, has it not?
(Dr Thomson) That is certainly not my impression.
Obviously, as you are aware, a lot of my experience is in local
government and there is still a good deal, as you would hope an
expect, of diversity and innovation within local government. My
time with the Audit Commission was involved in inspecting 475
local authorities. They are all very different, they are different
sizes, shapes, they serve different communities. Perhaps what
has changed, to go some way towards recognising what you say,
is that citizens now expect certain services to be delivered to
a national level of quality and quantity. In certain areas like
education there were times not that long ago, within my lifetime,
where education was not offered on a full-time basis in some parts
of this country. Fourteen and 15-year olds were given education
on a part-time basis. We would not now consider that acceptable.
Modern citizens in this country expect to have access to full-time
education up to the age of 16. Local government is still very
much its own responsibility and taking leadership for the community.
If you travel, as I have, up and down the country, you really
appreciate that diversity, but it also now is taking responsibility
for delivering services to a standard that citizens expect and
have a right to.
625. I am not saying whether it is good or bad.
When we talk about, and I do not know whether you coined the phrase,
earned autonomy, which is an interestingly nice phrase, it is
also a wonderfully top-down patronising phrase. It is like a parent
talking to a child: "If you come back tonight at a decent
time you can stay out longer tomorrow night". This is not
the traditional relationship between the centre and independent
localities, is it?
(Dr Thomson) I think it probably depends on where
you are sitting. I think the term was first coined when I was
in local government. To me what it offered was an opportunity
for the best and well-performing councils to gain the recognition
and flexibilitiesand public recognition more than anythingthat
they wanted to be able to attract. I am afraid the opposite of
the earned autonomy model has tended to be, maybe because of media
attention, that one bad council covers all councils and therefore
all councils are treated as if they are failing. Maybe you should
make an explicit policy to recognise that there is huge diversity
amongst councils. Some are excellent, some are working in difficult
circumstances and providing a great deal in difficult circumstances.
Some quite honestly are perhaps not trying hard enough. Others
are not performing to an adequate level. Unless we recognise that,
what we do is to treat everyone as if they are failing. The Government
has a great tendency every time there is a problem to organise
the whole of government around that problem. I think the earned
autonomy modelI felt this when I was out of governmentwas
an opportunity to prove ourselves as competent and capable.
626. If delivery does not work, if we do not
get a bouncy beautiful baby but we get a miscarriage, who is responsible?
Where does the accountability stop? Is it your fault? Is it Michael
Barber's fault? Is it Lord Macdonald's fault? Is it John Prescott's
fault? Is it the Prime Minister's fault? Whose fault is it?
(Dr Thomson) One of the new cultures I hope that we
will be enabling in the public services is less of a search for
blame and more of a culture of innovation.
627. But accountability says that somebody is
responsible for delivery.
(Dr Thomson) I am not countering that. One of the
things we need to do is to encourage people sometimes to take
responsibility and therefore within this framework the four principles
set out accountability. We need clear national standards and people
need to be accountable for those. What builds on that is a framework
of accountability so that we are very clear who is responsible.
Once responsibility is placed for delivering, people then have
much more flexibility and freedom about how they go about delivering
to those standards. Within government is a complex range of accountabilities
but certainly the main one rests, as your Committee well knows,
with the relevant Secretary of State and the department which
has the legal and financial powers to provide those particular
services. They then in turn delegate and devolve that through
a whole range of devolved agencies. What we are trying to do is
to make sure that responsibility rests as close to the citizen
or customer as it can. That is what people want. They do not want
people referring them up the line for decisions. They want decisions
right then. Devolving responsibility as far as we can down the
line is what should happen and that certainly will not be facilitated
if only someone at the heart of government is responsible.
628. Can I just take you back to your Newham
days and as somebody who was in local government at the time and
went down to Newham to look at the way you were doing it, came
away greatly impressed, except that there was, if you went beneath
the surface, a bit more of a gloss in the early days than there
was substance. I have no doubt that Newham went on and delivered
it but there was a lot of spin in the first few years of the PIs
and things like that. How much of the change management that you
were talking has got embedded and what sort of timescale are you
looking to do it in, or is it about trying to set the culture
at the moment?
(Dr Thomson) To mention the process in Newham, one
of the first things to do in an area where expectations have been
low, and it really embodied the "poor services for poor people"
kind of mentality, you have to start driving aspirations. People
need to expect more. You can call that spin but if you do not
start saying that people have a right to expect and must be aspiring
to a lot, then you never do it. Certainly if you look now at Newham,
no schools there are in special measures, and the improvement
of their primary and secondary schools is amongst the top in the
country, even the people who live there think so. When I was first
in Newham most people's top aspiration as far as the local area
was concerned was to move somewhere else as quickly as they could,
which is part of the problem of East London where there is perpetual
migration. Now in the latest poll 67 per cent of people wished
to be there in ten years' time and will be recommending to their
friends that Newham is the place to live. That is in a four or
five year time frame. At the beginning there is inevitably a need
to create ambition and aspiration, but you need to follow that
through with concrete plans for delivering. I guess the same would
apply here in services being provided from a national government
level. Managing that delivery from the centre is obviously very
different, but first, espousing the centrality of the customer
and the importance of serving the customer, making the principles
of reform clear to people, is like that first stage but it needs
to be followed through with the kind of performance targets and
customer care that we can see detailed right across government.
629. As somebody who supports that kind of agenda,
and I think it really is important, and there are a lot of things
happening in the delivery unit, the performance unit and so on,
at the end of the day do you not think it all comes down to the
fact that there is going to be a Comprehensive Spending Review
next year and the Treasury are going to decide the money, the
Treasury can decide the PSAs and at the end of the day if the
Treasury does not like it it isn't going to happen, so this is
all window dressing and if the Treasury decide otherwise, no matter
what you say it will not happen?
(Dr Thomson) The innovation that the Treasury has
introduced in the last few years of having good performance management
is just good management. I worked in the Audit Commission, and
in any international work you look at, government needs good performance
management systems. That is what the Treasury has set up. But
no performance management system can just centrally hand targets
to people and expect them to deliver. The Treasury will be working
with us and with departments to agree performance targets that
need to be delivered and the arrangements needed for delivering
those. At the end of the day telling people what to do looks easy
but actually it does not work. Anyone who has been in government
for any time knows that to be true, and I am sure the Treasury
is very much aware that it needs to get people's commitment to
delivering whatever it is they agree to deliver.
630. One of the issues that you are trying to
do is to get joined-up government and that is what modernising
government was about perhaps. Is not one of the problems that
we still allocate money by departments and that we do not get
money by the outcome?
(Dr Thomson) There is no disagreement as far as I
am aware that outcomes are what we really want and many of the
allocations of resources to departments do focus on outcomes.
Increasingly they show the need for departments to share commitments
to PSAs. The scope of pooled budgets, sharing money across departments,
is very difficult but I think we see more and more of it, and
you can see it from the work of the Social Exclusion Unit, the
work that the Treasury has done on cross-cutting reviews last
year and this year. It is difficult but it is possible.
631. Is not one of the issues we have at the
moment, and this goes to one of the areas you are looking at,
which is agencies, this relationship between central government,
local government, between agencies? How do you actually achieve
your policy objective if you have a regulatorand I will
just choose Oftel for the sake of choosing a regulatorwho
may have a different view from that of the policy objective of
government? How do you get round that barrier to your delivery
(Dr Thomson) I can really only speak from my own experience
of regulation at the Audit Commission and there we were very clear
that it was not our role to be determining policy. It was very
much our role working on behalf of government to provide the assurance
to the public that that policy, and particularly the use of public
money, was being spent in line and in accordance with government
policy. We were often pressed, particularly with the best value
regime, to invent policy because once you have set up an arrangement
where assurance of that kind is being sought people look to you
to provide that leadership, and we were very clear that that was
a matter for government, not a matter for the Commission. I see
other regulator agencies being involved in a similar way.
632. But do you have to deal with regulators
in your role in public service reform?
(Dr Thomson) We see regulation, particularly inspection,
as a key part of the cycle of good delivery. If you are going
to set high standards, devolve responsibility in delivering them
to the front line, you need to have some assurance that those
standards are being delivered. Public views are a very useful
way of knowing that but it is also good to have inspectors be
able to tell you how well those services are being provided. You
see it with Ofsted, the SSI, the whole range of inspection being
developed. They are not always popular, as I know very well, but
they actually can provide accurate information and objective information
of how well services are performing, and that is good for a well
633. Do you have any responsibility for the
modernising government targets that were set in the White Paper
and the e-governance targets?
(Dr Thomson) I do not have personal responsibility
for those targets; targets for e-government rest with the e-Envoy,
but various modernising targets held by departments are continuing
to be discharged by departments. The key role perhaps to make
clear for the Office is that we are not an executive agency in
any way. We are an advisory office.
634. Advisory! Interesting. I am sorry; that
was a rhetorical question. You are recruiting 25 to 30 high level
people from business, private sector and public sector. Where
are they going to be based?
(Dr Thomson) In the Cabinet Office.
635. They are going to be responsible to you
for reforming public services; is that right?
(Dr Thomson) They are responsible for a range of specific
projects that the Office is responsible for.
636. Which you will set.
(Dr Thomson) Only after discussion with people that
I work with, ministers, who are covering the various aspects of
637. Geoff Mulgan and Michael Barber?
(Dr Thomson) They are not ministers. Ultimately the
ministers are responsible for various aspects of public service
and we would be discussing and agreeing with them our plans for
638. So you will be working in two lines, one
with Geoff Mulgan and Michael Barber to look at some blue thinking
and delivery, and the other side with the ministers, so are you
telling the ministers to deliver or are the ministers saying to
you, "This is the way we think it should be"?
(Dr Thomson) I would not put it in that way. I think
it is better to think of our accountability as my working relationship
to Richard Wilson. Richard is my primary responsibility for reporting.
The Office covers a whole range of areas right across government
public service reform, and it is important that we hold the overall
view on reforms but the consequence of that is that it covers
a number of areas. Whichever particular area we are working on
would be the responsibility of that minister so, if we are doing
work on promoting the overall reform agenda and the principles,
we would be working with Gus Macdonald. If we are doing work on
health service reform it would be within the Health Service and
working with the Secretary of State for Health.
639. You sound as though you are a sort of spin
department between Geoff, Michael and you, you know, "We
are the ones that will reform this. We are working on this, we
will spin our way to that." Are you not going to destroy
the whole ethos of the Civil Service if you are not careful?
(Dr Thomson) I think there is little chance of my
destroying the ethos of the Civil Service. It seems to me to be
alive and well. The areas that I have set out in my written submission
describe the particular areas that we will be working in. They
are not the most politically attractive but they are some of the
nuts and bolts that make government work, so they are things like
trying to find ways of improving the framework for doing project
management in government, making sure that the management of agencies
works well, doing some work alongside departments to develop their
capacity and competence. These are managerial activities and they
are very much our focus.