Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 620 - 639)



  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 terms—and I have learned the language now—what 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 flexibilities—and public recognition more than anything—that 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 model—I felt this when I was out of government—was 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.

Brian White

  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 regulator—and I will just choose Oftel for the sake of choosing a regulator—who may have a different view from that of the policy objective of government? How do you get round that barrier to your delivery of services?
  (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 informed citizenship.

  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.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  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 this.

  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 specific projects.

  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.

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