Select Committee on Environmental Audit Ninth Report


72. In a recent report, Trade, Development and the Environment: The role of the FCO, we found that there is a lack of specialist environmental expertise in the FCO, and that this might occur more widely in the Civil service.[101] We decided in this inquiry to explore further the role of the Civil service in meeting the UK's climate change objectives.

73. The Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, initiated in 2005 a programme of assessment, the Departmental Capability Reviews, in order to "improve the capability of the Civil service to meet today's delivery objectives and to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow".[102] These reviews looked at issues that impact on effective delivery, including:

  • Strategic and leadership capabilities
  • Performance management
  • Skills for both current and future challenges[103]

    74. Since 2005 a number of reviews have been published, with DEFRA and DFID's reviews being published in March 2007. Sir Gus O'Donnell found that these two Departments "powerfully expose the challenge and complexity of working effectively across Departmental boundaries". He went on that "we must do this better and more flexibly if we are to achieve the Government's increasingly ambitious delivery goals. This poses some significant challenges to the machinery of Government but above all to the leaders of the Civil service".[104] The review found that, in particular, DEFRA was performing badly at delivery, and leadership in the Department was also criticised.[105] IPPR argues that the Capability Reviews show that "despite the strong emphasis placed on 'delivery' by the Blair Governments, key Whitehall public service delivery Departments continue to under-perform in this vital area". It concluded that the Civil service requires fundamental reform if it is to meet the challenges it faces:

      Despite its qualities, the Civil service is under-performing in key respects. It is often ineffective in carrying out its core functions of policy design and operational delivery. Too much Whitehall activity is undermined by its inability to work effectively across Departmental boundaries; by a narrow skills-base; and under-developed leadership. It lacks a strong centre able to think strategically, manage Civil service-wide change or drive standards up. Performance is poorly managed and poor performance too often goes unchecked.[106]

    75. These findings might be seen to be related to the findings of a 2006 review conducted by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) into Departments' Sustainable Development Action Plans (SDAPs), which were introduced to strengthen national delivery of sustainable development policy across Whitehall. The review, Off the starting block: SDC assessment of Government Sustainable Development Action Plans, found that Departments are finding it difficult to account for sustainable development due to SDAPs generally having:

    • a lack of a powerful business case for sustainable development
    • a lack of knowledge of the benefits of sustainable development
    • a lack of priority areas for sustainable development and timescales for which they should be completed
    • a lack of coverage of cross-Departmental challenges
    • a lack of outcome-focused and relevant targets[107]

    76. We asked witnesses whether they believe that the Civil service is receptive to the need to tackle climate change. Professor Tom Burke thought that the Civil service was not unresponsive to the challenge of climate change, but that rather it is "enormously responsive to the priorities set by Ministers".[108] He told us that "Departments reflect the aspirations and ambitions of their Ministers… [t]hat is why I say for climate change you really do need a Cabinet Office process that forces at a policy level the banging together of heads on an evidential basis. Even that cannot substitute for the fact that, at the end of the day, Ministers have to make choices and, frankly, Ministers are not always willing to make choices, particularly strategic choices where the benefits fall somewhat in the future and the costs quite often fall right away. It is understandable that they do that but there is not much point blaming the Civil service for that failure".[109]

    77. Nevertheless, we did hear from witnesses who stressed that along with political leadership, there is a need for greater leadership on this issue by the senior Civil service. Dr Duncan Russel told us that during the course of his research Departmental officials have indicated that there "is a lack of support within their own Departments from the senior Civil service. [Leadership] has to go beyond senior Ministers and down to the next level of the senior Civil service for them to provide the leadership within their Departments".[110] Elliot Morley MP agreed that "what is most crucial is the lead that comes from the top of the Civil service as well as the top of the Government".[111]

    Performance management and accountability

    78. The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) noted in a recent report that only four of fifteen Departments were marked in the Capability Reviews as "well placed" to manage the performance of Civil servants. It found that the Civil service faces "a widespread perception that its leaders are unaccountable for poor performance". This view was corroborated by a survey of the Senior Civil service which found that only 19% of senior Civil servants believed that poor performance was dealt with appropriately in their Departments. The PASC found that:

    79. A number of witnesses to this inquiry thought that poor performance management and the lack of accountability in the Civil service would need to be tackled for it to be better equipped to deal effectively with climate change. Guy Lodge argued to us that the "constitutional doctrine of Ministerial responsibility whereby Ministers are responsible for everything" limits the accountability of Civil servants.[113] He thought that Civil servants should become "more directly accountable for things like clearly defined delivery of operational matters for ensuring that Departments are fit for purpose. [For example,] I think it is the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary to ensure that the right skills are in place for delivering a Minister's objectives and the Civil service should be held to account for that".[114] He pointed to work at the Home Office as a way by which accountability might be improved:

      Already the Home Office, following the problems there, have introduced a new compact which is about clarifying the different responsibilities and accountabilities of Ministers and officials. As Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has said, we are all watching that closely to see how it works, so there is an experiment live at the moment in place which is implementing the sort of things we are recommending. In terms of greater accountability of the Civil service, I think it will be interesting to see how the new Prime Minister reacts to that. He has quite clearly said that he wants Parliament to hold the Executive to account. That must include Civil servants and not just Ministers. He has also said that maybe Parliament will have a role in overseeing senior appointments. There is certainly a growing debate about this and there is growing interest in how we hold senior Civil servants to account.[115]

    80. Elliot Morley MP told us that the Permanent Secretaries have "quite a big role to play" in translating climate change and sustainability into policy. He went on:

      In fact I have always wondered whether in relation to the reviews of the Civil service and the Permanent Secretaries in terms of their own assessment, which is linked to their salary review, whether the delivery of the objectives, particularly sustainable development objectives, should be one of the assessments that they have to go through in their performance reviews because that will certainly focus attention.[116]

    81. Nick Mabey also thought that Civil servants need to be made more accountable. He argued that the degree to which the environment is considered by policy makers in their work should be reflected in their opportunities for promotion.[117] Dr Russel called for an expansion of incentives to ensure that climate change and sustainable development is accounted for in the Civil service, such as "budgeting [and] career development paths… to encourage departmental staff to positively embrace cross-cutting issues in the long term":

      …incentives for staff should be provided to encourage them develop the skills sets (e.g. the ability to conduct a regulatory impact assessment) needed to deal [with] cross-cutting issues. This could be done, for example, by integrating climate change goals into job descriptions and making involvement in cross-cutting initiatives a favourable condition for career development.[118]

    82. The culture of the Civil service is such that Departments respond to their Minister's priorities, whether these priorities contradict climate change objectives or correspond with them. This fact stresses again the need for strong and consistent political leadership on this issue. Nevertheless, there is an important role for the senior civil service to play in ensuring that climate change is addressed by Whitehall, especially in those policy areas which might fall between Departments. In order to ensure that climate change is addressed better by civil servants we recommend that a greater degree of performance management should relate specifically to climate change objectives. This should include performance assessment that values and rewards working practices that are required to tackle climate change, such as cross-Departmental working. More directly, performance-related pay could be connected to meeting climate change-related policies. We recommend that the Cabinet Office, in conjunction with the Office of Climate Change, explore the potential for aligning performance management of appropriate civil servants with climate change objectives.


    83. In our inquiry into the FCO, we found that Civil servants were lacking specialist environmental skills in the FCO. Although we welcomed the fact that the FCO had implemented a training programme to improve the environmental knowledge of its staff, we found that the necessary depth of knowledge of environmental issues was unlikely to be developed within the current system. We recommended that career Civil servants with an environmental focus be developed in order to help address this. We also found that its internal corps of Civil servants is unable to develop their expertise quickly enough in this field, a point which the FCO accepted was the case. We therefore called for a large increase in the number of external appointments to bring in the appropriate skills.[119]

    84. During the course of this inquiry, Dr Duncan Russel argued that these skill shortages occur more widely in the Civil service. He argued for there to be adequate "diffuse approaches to ensure that there is sufficient administrative capacity within Departments to tackle cross-cutting issues". As part of this he called for changes to the regulatory impact assessment process (for our view on this see our report Regulatory Impact Assessments and Policy Appraisal, March 2007), and "programmes of sustained learning (e.g. rolling training schemes and centres of expertise)".[120] Nevertheless, other witnesses were less concerned about the level of scientific and climate change skills within Whitehall. Simon Retallack, IPPR, told us that he does not think that there is a problem with Civil servants' expertise on the science of climate change, but rather a lack of knowledge of implementing the solutions.[121] A Government official told us that "the level of expertise, both in terms of the science and economics across Government in climate change is extremely impressive".[122]

    85. In spite of this lack of agreement between witnesses regarding climate change knowledge in Whitehall, there was more of a consensus on there being a lack of professional skills in Whitehall for it to be able to manage effectively the UK's transition to a low carbon economy. An IPPR report Is Whitehall Fit For Purpose? discussed the findings of the Capability Reviews and concluded that Whitehall is failing in a number of key professional areas including leadership, building capacity, nurturing talent, encouraging innovation and managing performance. In addition to these, the report found significant shortcomings in the ability of Departments to deliver. We asked the author of the report, Guy Lodge, to elaborate on this:

      I certainly believe lack of specialist skills across Whitehall is a big problem… I should say it is also well acknowledged by the Civil service itself, as you have mentioned the Capability Reviews. What they really found was a deficiency when it comes to delivery skills: have the Civil service got experience of delivering things on the ground; do they have experience of the corporate services in terms of HR, financial management and the like. There is still a big gap there...[123]

    86. It is too early to say whether the Capability Reviews and other programmes to ensure that the professional skills required by the Civil service to deal with climate change, such as effective project management, will be successful. Although on the face of it these professional skills appear not directly to relate to climate change, failure to address these general skill shortages will undermine attempts to move the UK to a low carbon economy. This fact should provide added impetus to the modernisation agenda in the Civil service. The Government and senior Civil service must continue to drive up professional skills and standards across the Civil service.


    87. A response to skills shortages in the Civil service, other than by training, might be to increase the number of secondments and external appointments into the Civil service. This issue was recently discussed in our report into the FCO (May 2007), in which we recommended that there be "a large increase" in secondments and externally-appointed Civil servants to fill skill gaps in the FCO. Witnesses to this inquiry have told us that bringing in external expertise has a number of benefits including more robust policy through its creation by those with skills that might be lacking within the Civil service. Nick Mabey believed, from his perspective, that:

    88. The use of outside expertise through appointments and secondments has greatly increased in recent years.[125] Witnesses stressed that there remain hurdles to the effective use of outsiders, primarily centred on the difficulties of integrating them into the strong culture that exists in the Civil service. As a result of this culture "outsiders get quite frustrated because they cannot integrate within the Departments and some of them leave quite frustrated early on that they have not been able to come in and do the sorts of things that they would like to do".[126] We were also told that when an outsider leaves, "generally the system closes up behind" them. Nick Mabey has found that in order for external appointments to leave an institutional mark on the Civil service, the appointee him or herself must develop links between the Civil service and outside organisations:

      If you managed to embed a process which was partly external, then that would keep the processes you had worked on there going. More should be done both ways: to bring in professionals and to keep them there. Also more should be done to make sure people do skills transfers.[127]

    89. In order to address their perception that a greater input of specialist expertise in policymaking is needed, and to help address institutional failures in retaining this expertise when an external appointment may end, witnesses argued that the Civil service must be more open. Guy Lodge argued that the role of Civil servants involved with policymaking should evolve to become more like co-ordinators, who would "[bring] in relevant experts and [draw] on their knowledge and information, and then [advise] Ministers".[128] Mr Mabey argued that the core Civil service, those who remain Civil servants for their entire career, should become much smaller:

      There is a core that needs to do parliamentary work well and legal work well and drive through bills, but, to be honest, the rest of it is similar things that people do in the public and private sector outside. They have a lot more skill and expertise because they are not generalists. It would be a much better governed country if more people also had an experience of how difficult it is to run the Government and be a Civil Servant and to understand the pressures and difficulties and tensions… There is a two-way benefit of looking for a much more aggressive system of both secondments and openness in hiring that reserves the core of the Civil service but minimises that, rather than the feeling at the moment that we are trying to maximise that untouchable core…

      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.[129]

    90. The PASC has looked at the issue of external appointments. It concluded that "no organisation should be closed—outsiders can bring different skills and perspectives which should be welcomed. Every organisation can benefit from some degree of "ventilation"".[130] Nevertheless, the PASC was sceptical about increasing the number of external appointments through the use of targets, primarily due to the Government's own target that "about half" of senior Civil service postings should be externally advertised. It argued that "this particular target seems arbitrary and inexact, and does not seem to be based around identified skills gaps. If the Government does want to set a target, there should be a clear evidence base for it".[131] The PASC also warned that "if career Civil servants have limited opportunities of getting to the top [as a result of more external appointments to senior posts], the Government will not get the benefits of talented people joining lower down the service".[132]

    91. We believe that external appointments have an important role to play in equipping the Civil service with the range of skills required to tackle climate change, especially in those areas where the Civil service is unlikely to be able to develop the skills itself. We agree with witnesses that policy makers are more likely to develop more effective policy for climate change where they act more like coordinators, bringing together experts from all sectors, including the private sector, third sector and academia. We therefore call for a further increase in the movement of people into and out of the Civil service. However, any changes should be implemented in such a way that the benefits associated with the long-term employment of highly-skilled civil servants are not lost.

    92. We recommend that the Government undertakes a study to identify climate change skill and knowledge gaps in Government for important sectors, including energy, transport and construction. On the basis of this evidence the Government and Civil service should seek to fill the identified gaps with those individuals that have the best credentials, whether or not the individual is appointed internally or externally.

    101   Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, Trade, development and Environment: The Role of the FCO, HC 289 Back

    102   "Capability Reviews", Civil service, June 2007, Back

    103   "Capability Reviews: Background", Civil service, September 2007, Back

    104   "Capability Reviews, Tranche 3: Findings and common themes, Civil service - strengths and challenges ", Civil service, March 2007, Back

    105   ibid Back

    106   "12 Propositions on civil service reform", IPPR, September 2006, Back

    107   "Off the starting block: SDC assessment of Government Sustainable Development Action Plans", Sustainable Development Commission, November 2006,  Back

    108   Q 128 Back

    109   Q 129 Back

    110   Q 18 Back

    111   Q 98 Back

    112   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2006-7, Skills for Government, HC 93 Back

    113   Q 150 Back

    114   ibid Back

    115   Q152 Back

    116   Q 96 Back

    117   Q 36 Back

    118   Ev 3 Back

    119   Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, Trade, development and Environment: The Role of the FCO, HC 289, p26 Back

    120   Ev 3 Back

    121   Q 149 [Mr Retallack] Back

    122   Q 186 Back

    123   Q 146 Back

    124   Q 59 Back

    125   Q 148 Back

    126   Q 148 [Mr Lodge] Back

    127   Q 59 Back

    128   Q 150 [Mr Lodge] Back

    129   Q 61 Back

    130   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2006-7, Skills for Government, HC 93 Back

    131   ibid Back

    132   ibid Back

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