Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 63)



  Q60  Mr Chaytor: What is the role of the National School of Government? How do you evaluate its success so far?

  Mr Mabey: I do not feel particularly qualified to talk about it because it was just setting up as I was leaving government and I have not had a lot of experience of it. I was not impressed by some of the things I saw it do. I think it is needed. Do we need it to be a government-held body, or would we be better using the existing expertise and policy courses and skills around our universities? For the interests of integrating those institutions into better understanding how government works, I come back constantly in a lot of my work now and in government is about trying to sit the people who do the thinking and the people who do the policymaking together in rooms so they can learn directly from each other and not through someone else's training course. That is by far the most productive thing to do. I am not quite sure where the National School of Government is going but I think we are perhaps not being as innovative and open about how we bring those skills into government and set up and train civil servants. I think people have done it in lots of areas but, again, people do not talk about it.

  Q61  Mr Chaytor: You are calling for a reduced central Civil Service with presumably a stronger strategic role but are there questions you would raise about the traditional process of recruitment? How does our system compare to other similar countries? Are there other countries who have their central civil service working better than we have?

  Mr Mabey: It is different in different places. The smaller countries are always better at being strategic and joined up because there are fewer of them. We used to have a whole round of strategy units coming through, whether it was from China or Sweden, and you could always tell the difference between small/medium sized and big countries. Small countries work better. They tend to have less red tape in the way, even if they have less capacity, and they therefore draw a lot more strongly on outside expertise. I think the complexity of government has got so much larger now that we should essentially consider ourselves a medium to small sized government on the global scale and therefore realise that we cannot afford the classic great power approach of keeping everything in-house. The French still keep that as their approach and the Germans are midway between us and the French. The Americans have a far more open approach, both in terms of bringing in expertise and also because of the political appointee system. I am not a fan of their political appointee system but I am a fan of how they draw on their best expertise. You hardly ever meet a university professor in the US who does not have an in-depth knowledge of how government works and does not work, who has not been involved in a serious piece of legislative work. They do serious pieces of research. Sometimes they do too much research, but they certainly involve people in the process much more strongly. I think there should be a larger Civil Service than there is now in terms of people who do policy and implementation, governed by good Civil Service ethics and some type of professionalism of civil servants, but only a small proportion, say 20 per cent, should do that for the whole of their career. I think there are plenty of people who know how to run large, complex organisations, lots of people who know how to do strategy and policy outside government, who could make up the other 80 per cent for a significantly large piece of their career. If you had a good enough institutional management system and learning system, that would work, and that would use all our talents in this country rather than showing people in at one end and getting them out at the other end with a marginal five per cent interchange, most of it in the agencies rather than in the core Whitehall sense. As I say, that would educate the people outside government as much as the people inside government and would therefore make us a better governed country, both in civil society terms and in terms of government.

  Q62  Mr Chaytor: Finally, can I ask about sustainable development and climate change policies specifically. How successful do you think the Government has been in raising awareness of the standing of the Civil Service and the relevant departments? Is there a difference in the level of understanding about policy implementation in respect of climate change as against the broader area of sustainable development?

  Mr Mabey: Yes. Climate change is an easier sell but it has the advantage of having a far higher public interest in it and political interest in it and there are a lot of people trying to communicate it outside government in an exciting way. From being slightly behind, climate change has caught up and overtaken immensely. Going back to my previous answer, I think sustainable development has suffered from being communicated in the wrong way and not being backed up by things people can grip. The constant frustration I face in talking to policymakers was: "I don't know what you mean. I don't know what this is. I don't know how to do it. How do I do sustainable development?" We say, "You look long term, you bring in environmental resource issues and you make sensible policy." They said, "Why didn't someone tell me that? It sounded so complicated. It was all this balancing and fillers." In fact, climate change is pretty much common sense. Why would you leave out an important piece of policy area like environmental resources? As environmental resources have seemed to get more scarce, they have naturally flowed into heftier decision making, where people have the tools to handle that. I think sustainable development as a concept has become a bit of a millstone at the operational level. It is fine to talk about it as an objective and to use that to say, "This is what we are trying to go to" but operationally it has got in the way and the successes of integrated policymaking with which I have been involved has generally avoided using the term.

  Q63  Mr Chaytor: Is it time to kill it completely?

  Mr Mabey: We do not try to integrate liberty across government. We integrate specific issues on human rights and have tools about human rights policy and laws and training, because that is how you operationalise some aspects of liberty, through human rights, and sometimes using freedom of information. That for me is the difference between sustainable development as a goal, a discussion of high level politics with political parties, balancing issues around long-term objectives, but that is not how you operationalise it. You cannot operationalise it with one goal. We do not do it on anything else. We do not do it on economics, we do not do it on social policy, we do not do it on human rights, we do not do it on security policy, but for some reason we have tried to do it on sustainable development and I just do not think it has worked. Yes, as an objective. No, as an operational way of doing things.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. That has been very interesting indeed.

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