Governance and leadership of the Department for Education: Government Response to the Third Report of the Committee, Session 2012-13 - Education Committee Contents


Government response


We would like to thank the Committee for their report into the governance and leadership of the Department for Education, and for their thoughtful recommendations. As the Report notes, the Department has undergone significant change since the Election in May 2010, and Ministers, non-executive board members and the senior executive team are conscious of the challenges this poses, many of which are highlighted in the Committee's Report.

The Committee will be aware that since the Report was published, the Department has published the findings of the DfE Review. Many of the Review's themes addressed similar questions to those raised in the Report and in Select Committee hearings and Committee visits to the Department. There were specific work strands on governance, people and cross-site working, the findings of which might be of particular interest to the Committee. A copy of the Review is attached to this response for ease of reference [not printed].

The Review was launched in June, as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, and considered how the DfE can best continue to deliver the Government's priorities whilst meeting the challenges of budget pressures. Its aim was to look at the Department from a zero base, and ask some fundamental questions about the size, shape and role of central government in the education and children's services sectors.

We are currently in the early stages of implementation. As a result, some of the elements of this response reflect areas where the Committee's recommendations are still under consideration as part of implementation plans.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In the response below, the Committee's specific conclusions and recommendations are in bold text and the Government's responses are in plain text.

Changes to the Departmental Board

1. We believe that regular Ministerial involvement in Departmental Board meetings is a sound feature of the new system, but caution against political involvement in fundamentally Civil Service management decisions. We therefore equally support the retention of an executive management board. We recommend that the Department pursue Sir Michael Barber's suggestion of further training from the Institute for Government. (Paragraph 16)

In line with the HMT/Cabinet Office protocol on Enhanced Departmental Boards, the DfE underwent an internal evaluation of the Board's effectiveness. In light of that, the Board and Committee structure has been altered slightly. Since the publication of the Committee's Report, we have also had the findings of the governance strand of the DfE Review, which focuses on embedding the new structure effectively. The previous Executive Management Board is now a Management Committee, which includes the Permanent Secretary, three Directors General (one of whom is the Head of Profession for Policy) and the Directors of Finance, HR and Strategy. In addition, it includes the Chief Executive of the Education Funding Agency, in his capacity as Head of Profession for Operational Delivery, and non-executive board members in a support and challenge role. This wider membership is proving extremely useful in terms of having more expertise around the table, and a wider range of perspectives. The Committee has also taken on the functions that used to be covered under Nominations and Governance, in keeping with the evaluation's recommendation to streamline governance structures. All members of the Management Committee are also members of the Department's wider Board.

We do not accept that the Department's Board structure risks political involvement in Civil Service management decisions. There is a clear protocol set out by the Cabinet Office on Enhanced Departmental Boards, and the roles of Ministers and Civil Servants are underpinned by both the Ministerial Code and the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.

The Department would agree with Sir Michael Barber that the IFG's input into the successful running of the Board has been valuable. We expect to continue to work closely with the IFG, and are hoping to work with them on a seminar on building strong leadership teams.

2. We believe the increased number of NEBMs could bring significant advantages to the workings of the DfE Board, and applaud the appointment of four skilled and experienced candidates. (Paragraph 22)

3. We agree with Sir Michael Barber and Sir David Bell that political affiliations, including donations to political parties, should not debar an individual from public service. However, we believe that a more open appointment process for NEBMs would have put paid to any accusations of conflicts of interests, and recommend this take place in the future. We recommend, too, that the appointment process is better structured in future: headhunting, whilst clearly appropriate for such high-level posts, should take place as part of a formal interview process, rather than the slightly informal-sounding meetings which were reported to us. (Paragraph 23)

We strongly agree with the Committee that the presence of four NEBMs has brought significant advantages to the operation of the Board and its Committees, and to the Department more generally. Anthony Salz, John Nash, Theodore Agnew and Dame Sue John have brought a wide range of valuable expertise to the Department, both via formal Board meetings and in their wider work with officials.

In terms of the Committee's recommendation regarding the appointments process, the relevant process is set out in the HMT/Cabinet Office publication: Corporate governance in central government departments: Code of good practice 2011—guidance, available on the HMT website. Since the Committee's Report was published, members will be aware that both Anthony Salz and John Nash have left their roles as NEBMs. We are beginning the process of replacing them, in discussion with Cabinet Office, and will be seeking to ensure that we maintain a wide range of expertise on the Board.

The Executive Board

4. We accept the explanations offered to us concerning the significant number of changes to the Department's Executive Board. We applaud the Permanent Secretary's decision to maintain stability with interim Directors General, but would encourage him to make substantive appointments soon, as he suggested he would do. (Paragraph 30)

5. We understand the Permanent Secretary's rationale for changing the way in which corporate services functions are managed, but recommend that the Department evaluate fully the likely impact of any structural changes before they are made, considering the number it has already undergone in recent years. (Paragraph 31)

The DfE Review addressed both of these issues. It concluded, in line with the Committee's concern, that we should make no further substantial changes to the Department's fundamental structures. The Review also concluded that although there should not be a standalone corporate services directorate, there should be direct reporting lines between the HR and finance/commercial/estates/IT functions, and the Permanent Secretary. Further details are set out in the Review document.

Following confirmation that the Director General roles in the policy directorates remain unchanged, we will move shortly to advertise the roles on a permanent basis.

Evaluating the Board's performance

6. We support the Institute for Government's recommendation that Boards should be subject to annual, external evaluation of their performance, and recommend that the DfE implement this. (Paragraph 34)

7. We understand that full Departmental Board minutes cannot be published because of confidentiality and, in the DfE's words, "the need to preserve the candidness of discussion in a free and frank environment." However, we believe that, in the spirit of the Government's drive for increased transparency, minutes ought to provide the public with as much information as possible. Furthermore, we regret the Department's failure to publish minutes in a timely fashion, as it has promised to do, and urge it to rectify this: summary versions of the last 13 months' meeting should be made available immediately. (Paragraph 36)

The Review included a strand on governance, details of which are set out in the attached document. The Department agrees with the Committee and the IFG about the value of external evaluation of the Board's performance. Given the recent changes to the Board structure explained under recommendation 1, and the findings of the DfE Review regarding the streamlining of decision making, we are keen to monitor the effectiveness of the Board arrangements and will seek an external evaluation, as the Committee suggests.

The Department has published summary versions of minutes from meetings between November 2011 and October 2012. As part of the implementation of the governance strand of the DfE Review, we will continue to consider how we can publish as much information as possible whilst maintaining the meetings as a forum for free, frank and confidential discussion.

Restructuring the Department for Education and its associated bodies

8. Particularly in light of the recent reshuffle, we urge the Department to maintain focus on the critical children's policy agenda, and to ensure these areas receive adequate Ministerial and senior official attention. The DfE should consider appointing a non-executive Board member with specific knowledge of such issues, as it has done for schools policy. (Paragraph 41)

Across all areas of the Department's business (both education and children's services), we are, in line with the Review, prioritising our scarce resources on the most critical areas of business. Across the board this means highlighting areas which need the most resource and identifying work that can be stopped, or delegated if it is best delivered by someone other than central Government. We do not recognise, however, the picture painted by the Committee of focus shifting away from the children's agenda. We agree with the Committee that it is important that this area receives Ministerial and senior official attention, and this is already in place on crucial policy areas including SEN, safeguarding, adoption and fostering, early education and childcare. As noted above in response to recommendations 2 and 3, there are impending changes to the non-executive team, and we will consider the need for children's services expertise when appointing new NEBMs.

Executive Agencies

9. We recommend that the Department carry out a full evaluation of the impact of its structural changes, both as a result of shifts in policy priority and of creating new Executive Agencies, after a suitable interval. This evaluation, should, critically, have input from staff at all grades across all DfE sites and should consider, amongst other issues, the impact on the changes on policy development, on Departmental efficiency (financial, technological and communicatory), on staff morale and workloads, on provision of front-line delivery and customer service (including input from the front line where appropriate), and on the roles and responsibilities of senior managers. (Paragraph 45)

The DfE Review strand on the role, size and shape of the Department looked in detail at its structures, including the effect of structural changes made since the Election. The Review process involved staff from all grades across all sites, and this will continue throughout the implementation phase. We agree with the Committee that a focus on the roles and responsibilities of senior managers will be important, particularly as the Department moves to a more flexible staffing model. The Department will need to monitor and evaluate the effect of both organisational changes and its policy and delivery programmes over the coming years. Input from the front line will be important for this, both in terms of qualitative feedback from professionals and quantitative data on the impact of the reform programmes across education and children's services.

Working across Government

10. We agree with Zoe Gruhn and Anthony Salz that lead non-executive Board members might play a valuable role in improving cross-Government working, and encourage the Department to pursue innovative ways of improving this at senior and operational levels. (Paragraph 46)

The Department works closely with a number of other Departments, for example the Department of Health on special educational needs, the Ministry of Justice on family justice and the department for Business Innovation and Skills on Apprenticeships. The fact we share a joint Minister with BIS is a very specific demonstration of our commitment to cross-Government working. Our NEBMs have been active participants in cross-Whitehall events, particularly focussing on where Departments can learn from one another to improve practices around efficient and effective working. More generally, the standard elements of cross-Whitehall machinery (for example Cabinet Committees), continue to encourage effective cross-Government working. At official level, there are a number of cross-department networks, particularly amongst senior leaders on leadership programmes, and those who form part of the Top 200 Civil Service group.

Engaging with the front line

11. We agree with Sir David Bell and Jon Coles that the Department needs and benefits keenly from front-line input, particularly at senior levels, and believe that more could be done to ensure this, particularly in light of the bringing in-house of so many delivery functions. As a starting point, we recommend that the Government return to our own previous recommendations in this field, including the appointment of chief professional officers and widening opportunities for secondments in and out of the Department. (Paragraph 50)

Operational delivery is as significant as policy development in the Department's role, and includes but is not restricted to the role of Department's executive agencies. As part of the Departmental Review, we therefore considered whether the Department has the right people in the right roles in order to be able to deliver ministerial policy and delivery priorities as efficiently and effectively as possible. As mentioned above, this included an analysis of the shape and structure of the Department, including the make-up of the senior team.

The Department agrees fully with the Committee's views on the importance of securing significant frontline input and expertise into both policy development and delivery. Rather than focussing this expertise in two senior chief professional officer roles, we have chosen to bring in expertise in a wider range of ways. Spanning both education and children's services, there is of course the statutory role of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, with whom the Department works closely. On the schools side, we have appointed Charlie Taylor (a former head teacher) as Chief Executive of the Teaching Agency, and Dr Elizabeth Sidwell (a former Academy principal) as the Schools Commissioner. We continue to maintain the arrangements which have worked well since Sir Michael Barber's time of ensuring that we have expert education advisers (including, for example, former headteachers or Ofsted HMIs) on flexible contracts to the Department providing useful front line input and experience into our day-to-day business. On the children's services side, we have engaged the expertise of, amongst others, Sir Martin Narey, Eileen Munro and Dame Clare Tickell to assist in our development of policies on adoption, safeguarding and early education. We will shortly be recruiting a Chief Social Worker whose role will include advising Ministers on front line social work practice. Across the piece, we will be recruiting a number of Policy Fellows as part of the implementation of the policy strand of the DfE Review.

Taken together, these measures have and will continue to ensure we gain specific insight into our wide spectrum of policies, rather than attempting to secure the expertise, perspective and skillset in one or two particular individuals.

Turning to the second element of the recommendation, we agree with the Committee about the importance of opportunities for secondment both in and out of the Department. Whilst we make extensive use of secondments out of DfE (and currently have a range of staff on secondment, for example, to Academy sponsor chains, local authorities and the voluntary sector), we will consider further how to increase secondments into the Department.

Personnel issues

12. We acknowledge that the current economic climate and the inevitable change following the General Election may have impacted on staff survey results in 2011, and we similarly recognise that the DfE has continued to outperform many Whitehall Departments in those results. However, we are concerned at the Permanent Secretary's view that he is "not dealing with a disaster situation"; with 4 in 5 staff believing change to be managed poorly, and only half believing the Department itself to be well run, this looks complacent. We recommend that the Department adopt a little more urgency in dealing with staff morale, especially given the results have dropped significantly from the 2010 survey. Particularly in straitened times, a Government Department's people are its most valuable resource. They deserve to be managed effectively and have their views taken seriously. (Paragraph 55)

The Department welcomes the Committee's acknowledgement that the current economic climate and degree of change in DfE has had an impact on staff survey results. It is also the case that since the Report was published, the results of the 2012 survey have been published. It is worth noting that the 2012 results are not a like-for-like comparison from 2011, due to the incorporation of the new executive agencies. The 2012 survey was also conducted during the period in which the DfE Review was underway, which caused some uncertainty amongst staff.

Turning first to the Committee's findings on the 2011 results, the Department does not recognise an assessment of 4 in 5 staff believing change to be managed poorly. The 2011 results show 32 percent of staff agreeing that the DfE manages change well, with a further 34 percent expressing a neutral view on the question. The fact that a further 34 percent of staff disagreed that change is managed well was concerning, and the Permanent Secretary and the rest of the Board have sought to address that in managing the further changes the Department has undergone. The Permanent Secretary's agreement with Mr Coles about "not dealing with a disaster situation" is a reflection of the fact the DfE results are in line with Whitehall averages. It is also a reflection of the wider results in the 2011 survey, including, for example, the fact that 73 percent of staff reported a sense of personal accomplishment from their work, 79 percent had confidence in decisions taken by their manager and an average of over 86 percent reported being treated fairly and with respect at work. All of these could be useful indicators of staff morale. It is also the case that whilst it is a very useful management tool, the staff survey is just a snapshot, which should be viewed in the context of a wider range of indicators. The fact that DfE has had amongst the highest response rates in Whitehall in successive years (at 89 percent and 92 percent respectively) does not suggest a disengaged workforce.

It is undoubtedly the case that the DfE Review poses some significant challenges to the Department and its leadership team over the coming months, including in terms of staff morale. The need to make further administration savings will result in headcount reductions and closure of some of our sites. We do not underestimate how difficult this will be for staff, and a significant amount of senior officials' time across the organisation is being devoted to managing this implementation well.

Like all organisations, it is very important that we are conscious of the morale of our staff, and that we monitor it and take steps to ensure morale is high and staff are engaged effectively on delivering the Department's priorities. The DfE Review was established with a specific people strand, which looked at a range of issues affecting all staff. Whilst the Review did not make the case for making fundamental changes to the structures of the Department, it did conclude that a range of changes are needed on ways of working. Implementing these changes will mean that all of our staff have varied, well-defined and high-priority jobs, and are freed up from low-value activities like inefficient decision-making and multiple layers of clearance. The Department will ensure that the right learning and development opportunities are available to all staff, and that all staff are well managed and given opportunities to progress in the Department. We will also, as the Committee suggests, continue our focus on effective communication with staff, and on providing forums for them to express their views so that the leadership team's decisions are well-informed.

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