Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 320-339)



  320. Can I finally ask one last question about the management relationship of people in the centre with regard to departments. You have all been accused of being stuck in your silos and you have made tremendous efforts to move out of that. One of the questions earlier on was about Mike Granatt and the Government Information Service and his links to the Delivery Unit or the Office of Public Service Reform, a whole range of centre organisations where there is the potential for double management. Obviously with Martin Sixsmith going to Alistair Campbell, to yourself and to Mike Granatt, it shows the dangers of that. Have you thought through the implications of that?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I am in enough trouble without talking about that, Chairman! The way in which the centre is now organised poses significant issues for the way in which departments have to work and we spend quite a lot of time thinking about how to handle this. The point I would make—and it is a refrain I have uttered to the point where just about everybody in the system is bored silly with it—is we need to focus much more clearly than we tend to do on accountability and responsibility for things. So if my Secretary of State is accountable for a set of things within a constitutional doctrine, which rather parallels the one we were talking about earlier, if he is accountable and responsible for things and I am as well—without going into the more recherché aspects about the difference between accountability and responsibility—we must be in a position to justify the decisions that are taken. Therefore we need to distinguish fairly carefully between who is responsible for things and who is advising about things and we need to distinguish very carefully between who is monitoring performance and who is responsible for performance. These are quite different things. We need to always ask ourselves the question about added value in relation to these activities. I had better stop there before I am in even more trouble. That is not to say that what has now been introduced does not add value and is wrong. To give you two quick examples, we are working with the delivery unit on aspects of our Transport Policy and that process has added value. I am working with Wendy Thomson, the head of the Office of Public Service Reform, on how the Department might better organise itself to implement the local government White Paper that we recently published, and that process will add value. Lots of other processes which we are engaged in may also add value. The question in each case is, is this going to add value and, secondly, is the burden on the organisation such that you can cope with all this stuff and do its day job. That is the area that I focus on and I talk fairly actively with people at the centre about these issues, I talked too actively and too openly about them. Fortunately I did not talk to Mr Sixsmith about them in general terms! You are not necessarily thanked for raising these questions but they are, in my view, fundamental to the success of the government in delivering what it wants to deliver

  Brian White: I think that demonstrates why Sir Richard Wilson's successor's appointment is so critical.


  321. In a way it is a bit of a mess out there, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I would not like to agree with that, Chairman. I think that it requires a lot of managing. If I can say another thing—now I am going to get into a lot of trouble—I think that what is also very important is if you are running a change programme in the Civil Service—I know quite a lot about this because I used to run the biggest change programme in the Civil Service, which was the creation of executive agencies in the Civil Service—what you have to have in mind is that you will always be pushing people to change, it has to be realistic that they can respond and they have to understand what is being asked of them, and you must not change your messages too many times, because I have discovered that it takes quite a while, even with my best efforts, to get the message I want to get over to my people in the organisation so that they all understand it. You have to watch the half life of your initiatives if you are not going to completely confuse the staff. I am not suggesting that this has happened, if they get confused they just switch off. Is that your version of a mess, Chairman?

  Chairman: It was an elegant description of a mess, I think.

Mr Prentice

  322. I think we have squeezed the orange dry on this one. What is the main lesson that you would draw from all of this? You have spoken about a lot of things, special advisers, inductions, and so on and so forth, for yourself what is the main lesson that you have drawn from all of this?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) For me personally or for the way the system works?

  323. Both in fact?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I have not drawn any lessons for me, none that I would like to share with the Committee. Perhaps openness is not always a good idea. I do not think there are big lessons for the system in all of this. There are lessons for the system but they are not lessons that say special advisers are a bad idea. Some of the stuff which has been written about my Department—

  324. There is a simple point I wanted to get to, this was just a personality clash?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) On a big scale.

  325. That is point one. Do you agree with that?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Yes.

  326. These dysfunctional relationships that have been written about are not systemic across the Civil Service?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) They are not systemic in my Department, that is the thing I really resent.

  Mr Prentice: I do not think I have any more questions.

Mr Heyes

  327. Surprisingly, Chairman, Gordon anticipated my question. I was thinking of coming in at the end, I would like to take you to a higher ground and ask you about lessons, but Gordon anticipated that. You declined to answer that, you did promise us at the beginning, in your introductory comments, you, I think, optimistically hoped to keep us on the higher ground and talk about lessons?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I think we have stayed on the high ground. It is not for me to say, but I think the Committee have been quite kind to me in that respect. We are on the high ground. I think there are ways in which we should be clearer about the role of special advisers, particularly the role of special advisers that are dealing with the media. If you take the categories of special advisers, the experts they slot in—everyone knows what an expert is and they draw on them. There is then quite a tension, which is, generally speaking, in my experience a positive and constructive tension, between the sort of policy special advisers and the department. If you are the Permanent Secretary what you try to do, and this is one of the points I did promise I would come back to, as the Permanent Secretary in relation to those aspects is to say that having the grit of special advisers who are focussing on policy is definitely to the benefit of the system. To get the benefit for the system those special advisers have to work, in my experience, in a certain way. The way they need to work is they need to be open with the department in what they are doing, what they are asking and what they are saying in return for the department being open with them on information and in personal relationships. You do not want to make it too cosy because then you defeat the whole objective. These are very important considerations in relation to how the government is now structured, what the machinery of government is, and we must guard against there being a special advisers network round which one set of information is going and an official network round which another set of information is going, because you can get very bad decisions out of all that. You need openness and you need the challenge. For the Permanent Secretary the thing you want to say to people—not particularly the special advisers, although I do talk to them quite a bit—to the Department is, have a grown up relationship, have an open relationship and then you will get something out of it. The most difficult category is the ones who are principally about briefing the press because that, quite clearly, categorically and completely overlaps with the activities of the official machine. If there is not clear openness between the special advisers and the machine then you have great scope there for muddle. One of the favourite games that civil servants play—I am sure Parliament does not do this, you are much busier and have more important things to do—is you spot who briefed about what. You can spend five minutes doing this each day and you can see bits that come out of Ministers and you can see the bits that have come out of one bit of the machinery and then the bits that come out of another bit of the machinery. If you are not controlling that process—control is probably the wrong word—if that process is not coherent the government can get into quite a muddle. We do need to be clear about what these roles are and to have a sufficiently good relationship between special advisers doing media work and government people doing media work to make that work. If I can say one more thing, that is a very long answer. Partly, and I think this is the case also in relation to Jo Moore, this is not an issue simply about or mainly about the competence of special advisers. It is also an issue about the competence of government information officers. They have to be credible, they have to be able to do the business. One of the tensions inside our Department was not that Jo Moore thought that all of the government information officers were hopeless but she certainly thought a few of them were not the greatest thing she had ever come across, and she had a very high opinion about others, but that can create tension within any organisation. You have to be more open about that and you have to try and manage that better.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  328. Sir Richard, I am the newest member of this Committee, so I am on a learning curve. I know that you went to Keele University, and I share your view.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) It was a "Nissan hut" university, the last "Nissan hut" university.

  329. It was not invented when I went to university. I went to Manchester University and I would describe that as a black brick university.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I agree.

  330. I have listened to you with great interest, I would like you to confirm or clarify one or two little issues, to give, quite openly, if you wish to, your personal views on them based on 22 years experience? First of all, there are really two sorts of specialist advisers, are there not, the ones that I call the experts, the technical people who come up through the unit in the department as a defence expert, a transport expert, whatever they may be. There are also political advisers rather than special advisers who are there to promote the political mission of the government in power. Did you say that once somebody becomes a special adviser they become a member of the Civil Service?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) A temporary member. A member with a contract which defines the terms of their contract.

  331. Do they have a different brief of the traditional civil servant?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Some special advisers are former civil servants, and some have become civil servants, rather successfully I might add.

  332. Are they bound by the Official Secrets Act?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) They are.

  333. Would I be right in saying you feel you could design a relationship between the special advisers and the Department where it is not necessary for the special adviser to have any role in media relations, that should be left to the information office, or whatever it is called, of the Department of State?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) What I am saying is you could if you had an effective communications directorate and you could run a department in that way. If Ministers preferred to have some special adviser input into the media side I am not saying that should be ruled out or in anyway interfered with, I just say it has to be carefully managed.

  334. Whilst I myself have been a great supporter of secondments between the Civil Service and industry or business or trade unions, or whatever, the outside world, would I be right in saying that you think that secondment to an information department of the government is not a good thing and that, in fact, those who man them generally, although some come from outside, like Mr Martin Sixsmith did, they should be traditional civil servants who know how to manage, get the message out without the political spin on it? We get into trouble when political spin is put on statements from departments.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I think the Committee has been through this, it is a very interesting set of issues. I have read what you said and some of the evidence. Ministers, of course, want to put a political spin on things and some of them want to put it on themselves and some want others to help them. What is very important is, while we have the present sort of Civil Service we have, everyone is clear about the rules which apply to civil servants. I think you can run quite an effective communications machine where most of the people are putting out information within the context of the rules. It has to be neutral. You can tell the story about what the government has achieved, all of that is allowed. Then the last bit of political spin, so to speak, of the personalisation of things, is added by somebody else, either the minister him or herself or they have a special adviser. All of that is manageable and it is not rocket science to do it. Why I am sitting here squirming is, if it is not rocket science, why did I not pull it off. The answer is sometimes events catch you out.

  335. Would I be right in concluding you do not feel there is a great need to have new codes of conduct or strengthen codes of conduct, except you, presumably, welcome the innovative codes of conduct for special advisers?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I am a strong believer in the Civil Service Code. I was in the Cabinet Office years ago when a version of this Committee worked with the Cabinet Office in producing the Civil Service Code. The Committee drafted it. It was like my birthday when this happened because it was just fantastic. The thing I most wanted to do—I hope I am meeting your point—in the mid 1990s was to create confidence in the then opposition that they could rely on the Civil Service as being a completely unpoliticised institution, they could rely on it, and the Select Committee helped us enormously in underpinning that sense of the political impartiality of the Civil Service as well as its commitment to delivery. There is probably a similar role there in relation to a Civil Service Act. I am a strong believer in the Civil Service Codes, I am a passionate believer and I try and ram it down the throats of my people, in the nicest possible sense of the word "ram". I am a strong believer in values which go beyond the code because I do not think it is enough to say that the reason why civil servants exist is to be politically impartial and to be recruited on merit. It seems very odd to have an institution that is about itself. I am a strong believer that we must be an organisation that the country can see has a purpose. And, therefore, the values we defined for the Civil Service, work which I led, was designed to show we had a purpose and the purpose was underpinned by all of these amazing inventions which came out of the 19th century. I am a believer in the Special Advisers Code, I think that is a jolly good innovation. Ultimately, what you rely on, however, is the culture of the organisation. You have got all these books and so on, but the culture of the organisation is the thing you have got to worry about. Do people understand what it means to be a civil servant? The obligations of being a civil servants are quite unusual. I have spent my whole life doing it because I believe in it passionately. It is an idea about service with some very particular rules. I believe those rules are valuable for government in delivering what it wants. Government is not going to be happy if it sees civil servants flouting them, half applying them, seemingly being self-serving. I do not want many more Codes. I want processes which are about training, induction, selection and appraisal, which ensure you embody all of this inside your organisation. If it is a question, which is very important, about reputation and external credibility and the confidence of Parliament, then let us have a Civil Service Act, if Parliament can agree on it. That is my position.

  336. That is very helpful. What I think you are saying is you are talking about civil servants working in your Department, rather like the Prime Minister has written in the introduction to the Ministerial Code of Conduct for Ministers, that civil servants in your case should not only conform to the letter of the Code but also to the spirit?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Absolutely.

  337. One very final point. You did say at the beginning that this problem did start, and little fires break out and they go out but something can happen and you can not lose control but find it difficult to control events, especially when they are recognised by our wonderful fourth estate. Would I be right also in saying that you perhaps had problems in dealing with these issues we have been talking about because events started taking place outside your Department rather than still inside?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) In what way, as I sometimes say?

  338. You mentioned Number 10 and Mr Alistair Campbell being in touch with X as well as you being in touch with X. Is it your view, based upon your tremendous experience in the Civil Service, that things got out of control because they necessarily or deliberately were taken outside the boundaries of your Department?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Having absolutely tried to stand up before the Committee and say I believe passionately in a non-political Civil Service, I am reluctant to make the next remark because then people will say, "Oh, we are not so sure about him." Mr Alistair Campbell's role in relation to trying to deal with the aftermath of Martin Sixsmith's resignation was, in my view, wholly helpful and caused the Department no difficulty whatsoever. Far from causing me any difficulty, it was a considerable help to me.

  339. In the aftermath?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Yes, I do not think he had any role in the run up.

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