Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Can I call the Committee to order, and welcome our guest, Sir Andrew Turnbull, who is the fairly recently arrived Cabinet Secretary. We saw you as you were just beginning to get your feet under the table; now we hold you wholly accountable for what is going on. So it is a great pleasure to have you here again. Would you like to say something generally, to start with? We have got you here on a number of pretexts, we are looking at a whole range of things that come under your umbrella; so if you would like to start us off then hopefully we could get stuck into you?

  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Let me start with four brief points. The first I will describe as a request; now it is not for me to draft your report for you, but a request that when you come to draft the report you revisit Michael Barber's opening statement of last week, which is very important actually in setting the context, in particular, emphasising that targets are not a-self-standing management process but part of a wider process to raise performance and increase accountability. He borrowed John Brown's metaphor of targets being part of the tapestry of things, I think that is a very important piece of context. The second is an observation. I have not had time to read all the transcripts of previous evidence, but in all the bits that I have read one thing comes over. I do not think anyone seriously is advocating dropping targets', no-one really has got an alternative framework to propose; so the issue which comes out of this review is how can we do things better, how can we refine targets and the way they are used going forward. The third is a proposal, which is, where do I think the next advances come. The first I will describe as in the area of validation and assurance. Is there game-playing, at worst fiddling the figures? How can we be sure that the achievements claimed in fact are valid? In my view, this is an area where the degree of scrutiny is rising very rapidly. Many of the PSA numbers are national statistics, subject to all the integrity standards, each of the series used in the targets is the subject of a technical note. The NAO will be starting its programme of validation shortly, and the Audit Commission, most notably last week, is active in this field. So that is an area which I think we can see change quite quickly. But distilling out of the discussion, I think the most fundamental issue is giving the front line a greater role in setting targets and getting more of the accountability flowing downwards rather than upwards. There are examples of good practice in this area, but I think in the next round of target-setting probably this is the area where we want to make most progress and also it is the most difficult. Fourthly, a caveat, which is, the debate on targets is still what I would call an immature one. I think you may have used that word yourself, the Chairman and Kevin Brennan raised this in your discussion with Nigel Crisp. In the world of business, one expects to meet a majority of targets but not all of them, and if they were all met you would call into question the degree of stretch and ambition. But in the political world any time they are not met is presented as a failure. We also need to recognise that, even if all targets are not met in full, nevertheless, if you compare the position in the base year with where you are now, you can see a substantial improvement in outcomes. And the dilemma is that you need stretching targets to drive better performance and drive up the degree of ambition, but if targets are stretching they will not all be met, and that is the thing that needs to be recognised. I am hoping that one of the things that come out of this inquiry is a much better understanding of all these issues; and where the performance management process as a whole, of which targets are, as I say, a part can be improved. I think that is probably what I want to say by way of general introduction.

  2. Thank you very much indeed for that. As I say, a number of things come under your bailiwick; targets is one area that we shall talk to you about, but we shall talk about general organisation of government issues, too, I am sure. Could I ask you just one thing, to start with, which is, you mentioned this question about validation and assurance, could I relate that, just very briefly, to this infamous dossier about Iraq, which came out a few weeks ago, which many people felt had done great damage to the Government's position on the front of validation and assurance, because we know what it turned out to be. Can you just tell us how on earth that could have happened?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) A dossier was produced originally by the intelligence community, and then a document that was produced, unfortunately, I think, bearing the same name, calling itself a dossier, as opposed to a briefing. The answer is that it was not produced by the same people. I think that led people to a view that it was, in a sense, volume two of the same process, and clearly it was not.

  3. But who validates these documents? These are important things, in the context that we are talking about, and great damage is done if we do not get this right. What quality control system was, or was not, in place to ensure—
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) There was no second-guessing, it was not a case where this document was produced and then submitted to someone else. It was produced in the Strategy and Communications Unit of Number 10. They produced it, and they took responsibility for it.

  4. It was a huge mistake, was it not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am not going to judge; but I can understand why people thought that it was, as I say, volume two, and thereby casting doubt on volume one. They came out of two different processes.

  5. Let us move it on a little. I take it we are about to go to war. Can you tell us just what that does to the Machinery of Government; how does the Machinery of Government go onto a war footing?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) First of all, the military are organised, in the usual, very professional way. There is then a process, now, I suppose, quite familiar. I was involved in it in 1991, but it was rehearsed again for Kosovo and Afghanistan, in effect, for developing a daily routine, the analysis of what has been happening on the ground, the intelligence and reporting. That is digested by senior officials and the issues are then distilled and taken to a meeting which the Prime Minister chairs, earlyish in the morning, not at the crack of dawn because that is when the analysis of the intelligence process is going on, and the issues of the day are then acted upon. There can be then a whole series of implications for domestic departments too; while military conflict is being prepared for, thought is being given to the post-conflict situation, which starts off from an initial position, which could be a humanitarian one, through to how Iraq is governed and reconstructed. Work is going on, on that basis, involving a large number of departments. Also, at the same time, there is all the work which my colleague David Omand is doing on counter-terrorism; we are subject to a threat, this threat has been with us for some time and will continue to be with us, but we will need to be even more vigilant over this period.

  6. And this machinery that you are describing is ready to go?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes.

  7. Could I ask something on the communications side, because we read reports about how the Government communications system is gearing itself up for what is going to happen, perhaps you would tell us a little bit about that? And perhaps you would tell us whether the same guarantees that we are supposed to have about the integrity of the communications system apply in war too?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The quality of the message which comes out of Government in times of war has got to be even more credible, I would say, it cannot afford to mislead people, you have got to take the country with you. I think we have passed the sort of era, like the second world war, where you can give people a very, very partial account. The world media is there, these are wars which are fought out with the media actually there on site; you cannot afford not to have a fully credible message, which reveals as much as is consistent with the good operation, the good conduct, of the war itself.

  8. And the reports that say that there are special arrangements being made, units being set up ready to be deployed, and so on, all this, can you tell us how valid that is?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) This is the revival of the CIC, which is a unit that was mobilised for the conflict in Afghanistan; that can be remobilised in this case. But it needs to be able to both receive and transmit messages not simply to the UK public but globally, basically.

  9. And the intention is that it will be remobilised, and is ready to go?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes.

  10. Thank you for that. Can I ask then on just one more area, before handing over to colleagues, which is that when you were appointed, the remit, very emphatically, was to drive forward the Civil Service reform agenda, and I think we would like to know how this is going? When I read ministerial speeches these days, one by Gordon Brown recently, one by Alan Milburn—
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) You have read it, Gordon Brown's speech, all 11,000 words?

  11. Indeed; and I enjoyed it, and profited greatly from it. But they all have a lot of sentences in about how we are sorting out the Civil Service. How are we sorting out the Civil Service, how are you sorting out the Civil Service?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) First of all, I am starting by sorting out the Cabinet Office, which is, in a sense, the instrument, and I have brought the six units that were there, largely operating separately, into a single command. We meet regularly now, we plan work jointly, we share projects and we have tried to avoid that sense for departments that they are being bombarded by a whole series of conflicting initiatives; therefore there is a much greater sense of purpose. The second thing I have taken further is that each of the permanent secretaries, as part of their performance arrangements, leading ultimately to the Permanent Secretary Remuneration Committee, produces a performance plan. This is in two parts, their main delivery objectives and, secondly, what they are doing to develop the capacity of their organisations and their own personal capacity, I have agreed these with all permanent secretaries, that was done in September, October. We will come back to that, probably May, June, when they write up what actually they have achieved. So a performance management system for permanent secretaries is being given more substance, more form. But we are going on to develop that for departments as a whole. We are engaging now as a group in the Cabinet Office to develop an agreement, a departmental change programme, "performance partnerships" is the name we have given to it. What are the five or six things that are a priority for that department, starting with, have they got the right people at the top, have they got the right structures, have they got the right capability to deliver projects, is there a relationship with the various delivery agents they work with, whether it is the police, local government, quangos, or whatever. Are those things in good working order. I have done quite a lot of work on revamping the number of senior teams, Home Office, Lord Chancellor's Department, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, DEFRA. Also, we have done quite a lot of work on what we need to do to improve our success rate on major projects. Probably about three-quarters of the major projects actually are IT projects, but some of them are construction projects. We have agreed a set of principles that people should follow, and we have undertaken quite a lot of work to bring in or develop people with the skills to take those major projects forward. We were given a presentation on the history by Peter Gershon. Based on US experience, about a quarter of IT projects succeed, in the sense of being on budget and on time; about half are late, or overrun, or do not deliver their full functionality; and another quarter fail so badly they get dropped. Now, if we say we have got 40 major projects, are we prepared really to contemplate writing off ten of them and succeeding fully with only another ten? The answer is, no, we are not. So we are making a major effort to raise that success rate. The other thing I would indicate is, we have continued with the programme of recruiting talented people from outside. The open competitions are running at a rate of about 200 a year, and about 120 of those, i.e. about 60% of those 200, have gone to outsiders, and about 40 have been won by existing civil servants. There is more I could say, but that is a flavour.

  12. Yes, I am just trying to get a sense; you see, we see Cabinet Secretaries come and go, here, and they all tell us how they are reforming the Civil Service, and the phrase "reform of the Civil Service", it is a bit like "the Middle-East peace process", it seems to go on just endlessly into the distance?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not talk in terms of reform of the Civil Service, actually. I talk in terms of reforming public services, because many of the services that, the Government is committed to improving, ultimately are delivered by a front line which is not even in the Civil Service. And so you have to look at the total process, right from the genesis of the policy in Whitehall through to how it is delivered by the police, in schools, GP practices; therefore it is transforming the public services, rather than reform of the Civil Service, as an institution, which is properly the focus of my work.

  13. Yes, I accept that, although, of course, it was the Civil Service that was very much the focus of the reform agenda that you were given and why you bring in people to help you do that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes. If you asked me in what way have I taken on, for instance, my inheritance and developed it—

  14. That is what I am asking?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Okay. The first is a recognition of a different focus, which is the wider public services, so we have got to spend a lot more time on these relationship questions and not simply on questions that are internal to the Civil Service-pay, how we recruit, are all the important things, but we have got to move beyond that. And the second is the embedding of the delivery culture, and getting people really to buy into it and not start off with, I suppose you have a kind of process where, initially, people say, "What has all this got to do with me? I know it's going to happen, but I'm pretty apathetic about it," through to "I know it's got to happen, I want it to happen; help me, give me the skills that I need," which is where I think a lot of us are at now, through to "I believe in all this, and I'm confident I can make it happen." We have moved a long way, I think, in getting the PSAs as the focus of departmental activity. If you ask how are different departments' business plans constructed, how are the responsibility plans of individual business units, right the way down to people, they feed back to the PSAs. That is the dominant focus, and that is quite a big change.

  15. Thank you for that. I am sure colleagues will pursue that with you. Just very, very finally, to that, again, when you were setting up your Reform Strategy Team, part of their terms of reference was to work up a Civil Service Bill. Now, again, when your predecessor used to come to see us, he would tell us about the imminent arrival of this Bill, and he would give us timetables whereby things were going to happen, and this went on month in, month out, year in, year out, and I just wonder how this proclamation in the terms of reference has been converted into progress?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) We have resolved one issue, which is a point raised in your report on "These Unfortunate Events", the whole question of discipline, who is responsible for that. The Phillis Report on GICS is looking at a second issue, which is the proper role of special advisers in media work. We are waiting for Wicks, and also we are waiting for you, you are drafting a Bill. The question is, why is it not on the legislative programme; the answer comes down to six priorities. I think there is, even for the Cabinet Office, something which is higher up, in terms of our priorities, which is a Bill on civil emergencies, which is about putting right something that is seriously out of date, rather than a Bill which is giving the final touches to a system that, by and large, we understand. We have codes, we have a Ministerial Code, a Civil Service Code, a Special Adviser Code, and we police those. Ministers have to judge what priority do they give to drawing all that together, as opposed to all the other things that come in the legislative programme. At the moment, these other things have come higher up.

  16. But the commitment to the Bill is still there, and it is continuing?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) There is still a commitment there, yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I guess we shall talk more of those kinds of things.

Kevin Brennan

  17. Just picking up something that the Chairman asked about, in terms of the preparations for war, would that include a paper being put to Cabinet on the Crown Prerogative and its meaning, and so on?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No, I do not think so. The Crown Prerogative is the same as it has always been. There is a recognition that whatever are the Government's legal powers also it has to have legitimacy, and so all that it does has got to be (a) legal and (b) has got to command political support. Hence the various undertakings that have been given about debates.

  18. And has the Government had advice that what it is planning is legal?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It is recognised that no civil servant can be asked to do anything unlawful, and ministers recognise that absolutely; the military are in the same position. And work is going on now to set out what that basis of law is, and that is something that is going on at this moment.

  19. As we stand, currently, if, for example, over the weekend our military forces went into action in Iraq and there had not been any further resolution in the United Nations, are you confident, as a civil servant, and as the senior civil servant in the country, that you would be acting legally?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am confident that neither I nor anyone working for me will be put in the position of acting unlawfully. And that is an undertaking which, when they next debate it, Parliament is going to want that assurance about as well. It is going to need to know that what it is voting for is legal; the military need that, and, based on the same view, the Civil Service needs it. It is recognised that that is an absolute requirement, that there is a legal basis for any action that is taken.

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