Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 36 - 39)



  Q36  Chairman: Good morning and welcome to the Committee. It is our first session on this subject. You have had a fair amount of experience of government in terms of how the reality of developing policies and achieving outcomes and so on works. Would you like to start by using that experience to say how you think the structure of government and the way it operates can help or achieve effective action on climate change issues and sustainable development issues?

  Mr Mabey: Thank you and good morning to members of the Committee. That is a huge question but I will try to boil it down to four core areas. Having tried to do this in government, joined-up government, and also being in a department where this is being done and an NGO lobbying outside government, climate change fundamentally challenges any complex organisation as does sustainable development. It is a non-trivial task of organisation innovation and that is both an excuse for why it sometimes fails but also it should make people focus on why we should not look for incremental improvement but we should be looking for more radical issues here. We do not know how to do this, so we should be bold if we are taking international leadership in both our targets but also our structures and implementation. Setting an institutional lead in the UK is probably as important, to be honest, as setting something about reducing tonnes of carbon because institutional evolution is very, very hard, especially in the public sector. The second point is that I think getting climate change, if not right, at least better will be what drives sustainable development more broadly across government, not the other way round. I am happy to take questions on why I think that. There are four areas in which you look for failure and where some of the problems are. The first is strategic focus. On climate change we have had a very strong strategic focus from the centre on the overall strategy at high level. On sustainable development that has been completely lacking—so very contrasting. At the next level down, in terms of integrating innovative policymaking, we have failed to identify synergies and do the innovation and capture the real joint policymaking well, although the UK has probably explored more different ways than any other government. We have often politically failed to understand the implication of our decisions. We used to call it "piranha-ing" the climate change programme: it is all those thousands of little decisions which cut tonnes of carbon here and tonnes of carbon there, and there was no way of making the opportunity cost of that nibbling away at the programmes. To be honest, the Treasury and others were often responsible for that and the lack of transparency on the implications of not joining up and Defra never had the capacity or power to really challenge those decisions. Those are both policy and political failures, I think. The third area—which in some ways is more mundane but probably as important—is an enormous failure on project management. The climate change programme, once you have decided what to do, is essentially an enormously complex piece of project management. You would not manage a sweet shop using the systems we manage. When we asked to get a read out of how well we were doing, it took three or four months to get the data back from the departments. Ministers cannot be accountable to riskiness in programmes. When the data came, we said, "What is the risk around this? What is the range of likely outcomes of these different programmes?" and they went back again, made up some numbers and came back. As somebody who worked in the construction industry, the engineering industry, this is just so poor, I cannot believe it. Basic project management and risk management skills are not up to the task. The last area concerns the skills sets of the people trying to do this. I think we are trying to do very complicated things with people who are under-trained and under-skilled. The only professional skills in government are the Government Economic Service and its predecessors which is not a very good ground in these areas. We give hardly any training to people. We do not second enough skills in and we do not open enough senior posts to competitive management. We have an amazing set of people in the UK in the private sector and the academic sector who do this work and we do not use them inside the real policymaking process, so we waste a lot of investment outside. You cannot drive complex policies through substandard, unskilled staff. That is one of the big areas, that unwillingness to draw on the outside talent pool. I worry that people are mistaking the outcome of sustainable development for how you achieve it, having been told to do integrated policymaking, join up everything and do everything all at once. I know that is not how you drive change in organisations. How you drive change is very different. If we want to get environment integrated and long-term decision making and risk management, we drive those through the organisation; we do not ask people to hit some mythical three pillar model of sustainable development. I think that appraisal, three-pillar approach has held back us doing real day-to-day sustainable development in real processes as opposed to just tick-box assessment and nice reports, which has dominated the discussion today.

  Chairman: That is very helpful. Thank you.

  Q37  Dr Turner: That does not give us much joy to grasp at, I have to say. It occurs to me that what you have been describing is obviously a very dysfunctional Whitehall as far as organised change is concerned. Do you think this is a cultural problem as far as Whitehall is concerned, and that the people in Whitehall do not understand there is a problem here? Obviously, if they do not understand there is a problem, they will not be able to do very much about it. Do you feel this is the case?

  Mr Mabey: I would say they will respond to problems set by their political masters. Until recently, these were not problems. Now it is very clear to the structure that dealing with climate change is a problem big enough to look at internal structures. In the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, we tried to look at them after the White Paper in 2003. It bounced off the bureaucracy: they did not take the political momentum seriously enough to make those decisions. I think that has changed. In essence, across other parts of government, in domestic policy and in foreign and intelligence policy, we have seen much more radical structural reforms in terms of blending departments, building new joint departments, joint conflict prevention pools. The Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit is blended of three departments. We see it on drugs policy, we see it on criminal justice. There are many innovations in joint, long-term strategic policymaking in Whitehall, but, funnily enough, they have not been picked up in this area. That is more a reflection of the seriousness of the political signals that have gone through and perhaps of the lack of clear understanding by the policymakers involved about what they needed to do. That has changed. With the new political impetus, we are starting to see the type of experimentation we have seen in other areas in Whitehall.

  Q38  Dr Turner: You have quoted examples which have been more successful. Is that because they happen to involve the skill sets that were there? When we come to either sustainable development or dealing with climate change, there is a much more subtle and complex set of issues and these are not readily understood. How are we going to get that understanding into the system and who do you think is best placed to do it?

  Mr Mabey: I agree with you on that. I have worked a lot on looking at how government joined up on conflict prevention and failed states and on organised crime and it was interesting. As you say, where there was an established body of expertise—and organised crime looked quite like it—they could change quite rapidly, given a political signal. Where you were inventing a new field, potentially, and you were trying to plug together lots of different people—and conflict prevention was like that—it has taken a lot longer. Some of the innovations there include having created a new intelligence analyst area from the post-Iraq reform, where people can have a career now as an intelligence analyst across government, across many departments, and therefore keep the expertise and judgment skills growing over their career, whereas it used to be, if you were an analyst, that you stopped at a certain grade and had to go into management, even if you were a very experienced and very knowledgeable analyst. You have to give people those incentives to skill-up and grow and think they can become senior and powerful. This is back to the clever use of broad specialisation, as opposed to generalisation, which even under the Gus O'Donnell reforms still tried to be all things to all people and did not and did not really recognise the complexity of some of these areas and the skills they need.

  Q39  Dr Turner: We are still talking about the Civil Service culture which is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to positive change that we have. One would hope that the strategy and delivery units, of which you have had some experience, are there to try to change this. Have they really got to grips with the culture?

  Mr Mabey: I think we were getting somewhere before the Strategy Unit or the PIU, as it was, changed base. The beast that was the Strategy Unit, in particular, changed phases many times and I think it was at its best when it was driven by clear Cabinet decisions backed by the PM to do something in a place that added value with a full public process and departmental process and a clear follow-up. For two, three, four years it worked in that mode and also was working with departmental strategic units and working on training. It started to lay the foundation for something which was culture shifting: people saw there were rewards in standing up and doing things a bit differently and ministers saw that if they gave a mandate they could get something interesting back. Unfortunately, it then, partly because of the political lifecycle, collapsed back to something which was a little more short-term and more private and less rigorous. One of my fears and certainly of my other colleagues at the Strategy Unit is that we will forget the good lessons of that broader public, which gave us the Energy Review—the first Energy Review in 2002-03—which I think has shown how high quality works stands the test of time in the High Court better than things that are dreamt up in shorter periods of time.

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