Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100-119)



Mr Prentice

  100. Yes, but they swear the Hippocratic Oath, do they not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes, they do.

  101. You do not get a chief executive or private sector organisation swearing an oath?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) A company that takes this on and then is found to have abused this confidence (a) will have breached the contract, but (b) the reputational damage to it will be severe. So there are pressures and safeguards in this.

  Chairman: I think this is the beginning of another inquiry, but we shall want to talk to you more about this. This is a very interesting section, thank you very much indeed.

Mr Heyes

  102. I think, Chairman, there is a follow-on to this point. Sir Andrew reassured us, I think, in what he said, that regulation is the counterbalance, the security that you get to deal with Kelvin's fears about the risks attached to privatisation. But another arm of your organisation is the Regulatory Impact Unit, and their key task is to remove what is described very often as the burden of regulation. I think there is a contradiction here, is there not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It is not called the Deregulation Unit any more; it was at one stage.

  103. I am taking this from your Autumn Performance Report, that is six months out of date?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes, it is called the Regulatory Impact Unit, and its related body is called the Better Regulation Task Force. There is a recognition that regulation is an essential feature of life; regulation is a very effective way of securing policy objectives. And the issue is not whether you have it or whether you do not, it is how well you do it, whether you can find alternatives to regulation, whether it is proportionate, whether it is administered in a way that achieves its purpose, with the minimum degree of cost. That really is what the RIU is looking at. Rather than taking the stance that regulation per se is a bad thing, regulation is highly sought after, a lot of people argue for regulation.

  104. I wonder if there is something in the work of the Regulatory Impact Unit that might be helpful to us in our inquiry into the whole issue of targets. Have you done a regulatory impact assessment on the effects of the costs and burdens of public service performance targets themselves; does that information exist?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Not in that form. We are very conscious of the fact that one of the biggest complaints from public sector managers, the front-line staff, is the regulation that they are under. Now some of that may be reflecting the fact that they are being put under more pressure to perform, but undoubtedly some of it is genuine. The Prime Minister recognises these concerns and attaches a great deal of importance to them. One part of the Regulatory Impact Unit is the so-called Public Sector Team. They have developed a methodology, they have produced a series of reports, called MAD reports (Making A Difference). The methodology is to go to someone in the front line, it could be a headteacher, a GP, police area commander, a consultant, or whatever, and say, "Please tell us what is the impact, not only from the department but from the inspectorate of your sector, or the local government, what is the combined impact, and what can we do to do about that?" The first thing is about data and returns. Are people being asked in one month to send a return to one organisation, then the next month more or less the same data but not quite, so it has to be recast, to someone else, and can we consolidate these data returns? The other is that, whenever you set a target, immediately it spawns guidance, and can that guidance be cut back, kept out, or is it essential, and turned into readable material? A typical Public Sector Team report will come up with, maybe, for a sector, 30 or 40 actions that departments will undertake. They have done at least half a dozen of these now, and they are, I think, quite an effective way of addressing the problem.

  105. You mentioned chief constable there as an example of someone who might be approached. There is a chief constable, I think, who is so fed-up with the targets that are being imposed externally that he has abandoned the system and introduced his own range of targets and is operating quite independently, that has been his response?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is what can happen, if the system of targets is seen as purely a kind of top-down imposition. I do not think it is the general position. People do complain, but I do not think there are many people who freelance.

  106. Just staying with the work of the Regulatory Impact Unit, I see, again from the Autumn Performance Report, which I acknowledge is six months old now, that delivery is achieved through, the first bullet point is "High level bilateral meetings with Regulatory Reform Minister". Can you tell us some more about how that works?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Each department has, someone at official level and someone at ministerial level who are designated as having some overall responsibility for the regulatory impact. It is called a gateway, and they should scrutinise any new returns, or new guidance that is being issued, and see whether it is necessary, and look also at what is being done already. Now, if you take the Secondary Schools White Paper, that came out three weeks ago, there is a pledge there to reduce significantly the amount of guidance that is flowing out of the department into the school system, and one of the ministers in DfES, possibly David Miliband, is assigned with the oversight of that work.

  107. To go back to Kelvin's Orwellian references, a bit like thought police, this, is it?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is what we are trying to correct.

  108. Can I make just one more comment, Chair, before I finish. I spent quite a lot of time looking through your Autumn Performance Report, and, to be honest, I found it quite difficult to read, it seemed to me to be full of bureaucratic obscurity, and I picked out just one sentence that I think makes the point nicely, I wonder why it is necessary to use language like this. It is on page 7, "the Prime Minister's target for electronic service delivery by government". We are told that "the programme is seeking to move forward in three distinct areas", and, right at the bottom of the page, the bullet point says, and if this is not new-speak I do not know what is: "Mitigation of crosscutting risks (including development of customer-centric propositions to mitigate against risk of low take-up for services delivered in isolation)." How customer-centric is that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think I am going to put up my hand on that one.

  109. Could you translate it for us?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am not sure I can. This was the report on the target as specified in SR2000, and then if you look later you get the progress against the SR2002 PSA, there is a similar one, and the question is whether this offending sentence is still in there.

  110. There are plenty more, you can dip in almost at random. I am being partly light-hearted, and I do not want to press you any further on it.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I will take this back and say that you found it—yes, it is in there, at the top of page 24, yes, okay.

  Chairman: You are going away to see this man, are you not, who is very customer-centric; that is very good, thank you very much indeed.

Brian White

  111. We talk an awful lot, in public services, about choice, at the moment, we want to give customers choice. If customers are going to have choice about which public service then you have got to have spare capacity actually to be able to do it; so how inefficient are you looking to run the public services?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The question is whether having a degree of spare capacity is inefficient. I suspect there are parts of the public sector where this thing can run at 10,000 revs, max, and it is running at 10,000 revs max, and so any slight disturbance, if you take a hospital A&E department, causes massive disruption. Actually it is not the most efficient way to run it. So if you have people who are undergoing elective orthopaedic surgery, hips and knees, and all that, and they are mixed up with a stream of people who are coming in from accidents, and then they call all these people in and they do all the preparation, and then the surgeons have to say, "I'm sorry, we've got a big car crash; go home." That is massively inefficient. So I suspect having a bit more capacity is (a) probably more efficient, but the issue also is the question of customer service. If the thing is massively efficient but delivers a lousy service then it is not really a good service. If you take the courts, the courts may be massively efficient, in the sense that not one judge is ever spending one minute of his day not working, but if it keeps a lot of other people waiting it is not a good combined system. So I think you can trade off, in a sense, the pure efficiency against the quality of service.


  112. Thank you for that. Can I go on to a couple of things, to finish with. Could I ask you about Parliamentary Answers and whether you are the person responsible for the quality of the way in which Parliamentary Answers are run? I ask that because we have a little rule, which we have offered to colleagues, about taking up unsatisfactory answers, and, of course, people are sending us many examples of these, particularly where these circular answers go round to departments, and so on. Who is our quality controller inside the system that we can go to with these things?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The Cabinet Office provides the overall guidance, which says that answers have to be full, complete, prompt, etc. The actual content, you have heard the Speaker say many times that ministers are responsible for the content of the answers, so if you do not like the answer—

  113. Let me just give you an example, I do not want to detain you for much longer, but we have got a case at the moment where someone put down a question, asking for a bit of information, and a couple of departments simply gave it, and then everyone else gave an identical answer, a form of words, that had been supplied by somebody, somewhere. Who takes on the task of supplying the form of words?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It may well be the Cabinet Office. We get lots of round-robin questions and people say "We want advice on how to answer this," and the alternative would not be very satisfactory either, that some people give hugely long answers, some very peremptory ones. The Cabinet Office Parliamentary Section acts as a co-ordinator for round-robins, and the question is whether you make your own judgment as to whether, on balance, that drives standards up or drives standards down, but that is where the co-ordination is carried out.

  114. And, this is the point of the question, do you think we could have a little co-ordination with whoever this person is, so that, in fact, we can provide the service to the House that the House would like us to perform, in terms of just making sure there is a better system at work for getting answers out and ironing out some of these difficulties?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am sure there is a great deal that can be done to improve, as a pure process, how prompt it is. We have not tapped power of e-delivery into this thing at all.

  115. Perhaps I can ask our Clerk to make some contacts with you there. Just very quickly. We have been doing an inquiry, it seems to have been going on for ever, called The New Centre, and we do not report because the centre keeps changing all the time. What I want to know really is, now that you have had a go at it, is it in a form now that you think is its mature form, is this the best that we can do, in terms of organising the centre to make it do the delivery job for government?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think, given the evidence you have taken, before Christmas and from Michael Barber—who else came with him last week?

   116. From the Treasury, Macpherson.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think the answer is, yes, whoever writes this up now, I do not think suddenly you are going to find that there is some major change. This structure is, I hope, basically with us for the rest of this Parliament.

  117. You see, I came across, the other day, this piece by Geoff Mulgan, the Head of the Strategy Unit sits inside your network, where he had had these radical thoughts about how we could reorganise government entirely differently, to get away from the old departmental model, from the theme-based, and so on. Is that the kind of thing that we ought to be working towards, and do you think we need, perhaps, like at the end of the first world war we had the Haldane Inquiry, which gave us the modern departmental structure, do you think, a century on, we need a sort of Mulganesque inquiry that takes stock of the whole shooting-match?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I would approach this service by service, rather than trying to find a model that works everywhere, because the structure that you need in MoD has very little to do with the structure that you would want in the Department of Health. So I am sceptical as to whether there are some general principles or a completely new configuration that it would make run across the whole piece. There are lots of ideas about Machinery of Government changes in particular sectors. Indeed, if you take the Department of Health, absolutely major change, with effectively bringing the old NHS Executive into the Department, but I am not sure that the lessons you would draw from that really have much relevance, say, to the Home Office.

  118. Yes, in the present structure.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) But the centre I hope is pretty simple.

  119. Yes, the present structure will see you out anyway?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I hope so.

  Chairman: That is what we need to know, yes. I really want to thank you very, very much, because you have spoken to us in a very open and engaging way. I think we like the style that you bring to this, and it has been very stimulating, and we look forward to future conversations. Thank you very much indeed.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 11 April 2003