Public Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 74

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Tuesday 5 March 2013

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Robert Halfon

Kelvin Hopkins

Lindsay Roy


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield, Lord Norton, Professor of Government, University of Hull and Professor Anthony King, Professor of British Government at the University of Essex, gave evidence.

Q623 Chair: I welcome our very distinguished panel to this session on the future of the Civil Service. Could each of you identify yourselves for the record please?

Professor King: I am Anthony King, Professor of Government at the University of Essex, and one of your constituents.

Chair: I am glad you declared that interest, because I have to declare that interest as well. I am very proud of the University of Essex.

Lord Norton of Louth: Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government at the University of Hull.

Professor Flinders: Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Q624 Chair: I suppose I should also declare an interest in that the Department of Government has seconded an intern to my office from time to time, as, I am sure, it has to those of many of my colleagues. May I start by asking a very general question about the future of the Civil Service? Is the Civil Service equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

Professor King: I have three worries, each of which I could expand on, but which I will express simply as bullet points. First, I am persuaded that the Civil Service is pretty good at recruitment; I am not persuaded that it is nearly as good at retention, and I worry about people departing the Civil Service. Secondly, I worry, if anything even more, about a subject that has come up quite often before this Committee: the churn of civil servants both within and between Departments. Thirdly, I am worried about another issue, which, of course, you have considered, which is the considerable reluctance of many civil servants-to use the cliché-to speak truth to power. I have those three principal concerns.

Lord Norton of Louth: I would concur with those, and each perhaps we will come back to. Perhaps I would just add one that is not covered in the Government’s plans, which is the actual subjectspecific knowledge. The Government’s plan is to produce a Civil Service that is more fit for purpose from a managerial point of view, so they can do the job, but not necessarily know that much about the substance of the sector they are working in. The plan touches upon it, but I think not sufficiently. There is a key area there; if you are really going to be responsible for a particular sector of public policy I think you have to have some grounding in that sector.

Professor Flinders: I will follow Professor King in making just three quick points. For me, the big question is that we had a 20th century model in the past, based on permanence, generalism, and an almost reluctance to specialise. We do not seem to have a model or a blueprint at the moment for where we are going or why. We have a whole number of different reforms taking us in different directions, but we do not have any clear strategy for where we are going, or why.

The second thing is that if you look at what is happening, the structure of Whitehall is changing; we are moving to what I call a hub model of Government: a small strategic core that is increasingly attempting to control and regulate a whole wide range of arm’s length bodies, and we simply still have not got a grip of how you manage at a distance.

The final point, which has come up in both my colleagues’ first points, is this issue of churn: in the old days the issue of a Methodist model of three postings was seen as how to ensure that civil servants had great generalist knowledge. At the moment what it does is it prevents personal accountability and the development of expertise, which are so badly needed. For me, it is not so much about people leaving the Civil Service at the top; it is the constant movement and fluidity within the Civil Service, which often undermines any notion of institutional memory: being aware that we have been here before and knowing what happened in the past.

Q625 Chair: I have got truth to power, knowledge, strategic goals, and structure. A whole lot of things were poured into the mix there straight away. In terms of truth to power, what has gone wrong that means the system cannot speak truth to power in the way that it used to?

Professor King: I could discourse on this at length. The reason is fundamentally that politicians, who once regarded it as their job to govern the country in collaboration with civil servants, began in the 1980s a process that continued: a process of extreme assertiveness of Ministers vis-à-vis civil servants, such that many civil servants became inhibited about expressing their views, and many civil servants concluded that if they did express their views they would not be listened to. On top of which, many of them infer that if they did express their views, and if the Minister did not like them, it would not do their career any good. This goes back quite a long way; it is not, in my view, an entirely new phenomenon, but it is a very worrying one, and several of your witnesses have already referred to it.

Incidentally, an Oxford colleague of mine, Sir Ivor Crewe, and I have been working now for three or four years on a book to be published in a few months called The Blunders of our Governments-notice the plural. One of the things in the course of our detailed researches we have come across frequently, is evidence, and sometimes lack of evidence, that civil servants said to Ministers, "We do not think this will work on the ground". Quite a few of the people we interviewed said, in retirement, that they were very sad that they had not pressed the case against what the Government of the day was proposing to do hard enough. To take deliberately an ageold example, the dust on which has long since settled, the poll tax in the 1980s, there is not a trace of evidence that any official went to Ministers and said, "This is a terribly bright idea, but it is unimplementable; it will come to grief." That is very sad, and there has been little change in that over the last few decades.

Q626 Chair: I would like to explore that answer in a little detail, because you could be suggesting that something cultural has happened to politicians that they do not listen to the truth anymore, or are not interested in hearing it, or regard it as something deeply unhelpful when they hear it. Though, in my experience, good Ministers relish challenge and will engage with challenge. Do you not recognise that?

Professor King: I agree entirely with that formulation with its emphasis on good Ministers; some Ministers are better than others, and some Ministers are much more wilful.

Q627 Chair: What about the general system? That has become less resilient to challenge in terms of the ministerial system?

Professor King: That is broadly correct, yes.

Q628 Chair: Picking up what Professor Flinders was saying about structure and the move to the hub model, has this led to what some of our witnesses believe is a dislocation between where policy is made or driven from, and where it is implemented, so the people responsible for coming up with the ideas and wanting to implement it are derailed by another part of the Government-the communications bit or the Treasury bit? Council tax is a case in point, where the Treasury derailed what was a perfectly deliverable policy; the Treasury were just expecting it was going to collect far more money than the architects originally envisaged?

Professor King: That is undoubtedly a problem. That obviously goes much wider than to the issue of speaking truth to power.

Q629 Chair: The point is the division of responsibility meant that there was nobody in possession of the truth. Different bits were thinking different things and making different assumptions. It is that dislocation that this hub model might be reinforcing.

Professor Flinders: There is also a bigger issue that goes back to this issue of where the blueprint is? It is not just structure, but the rules of the game have changed between Ministers and some of their senior officials: this notion of the old public service bargain for the Civil Service: permanent, neutral, generalist. What we have had in recent years is more officials brought in from the private sector on what is a new public service bargain. That means that they are shortterm, they are highly paid, they are experts, but particularly when something goes wrong, the expectation is that they will carry the can; they will become the lightning rod, rather than the Minister. What we have failed to do is acknowledge the changing rules of the game and this new public service bargain.

Lord Norton of Louth: The point I was making in my note is to see Government qua Government, and not simply see it as a problem of the Civil Service. There is a problem on the ministerial side as well, in the way that Government itself has changed, and Ministers’ attitudes towards the task of being Ministers. Part of that is that Ministers come in without any prior experience, quite often, of Government. There is no training, and they have exalted expectations of what Departments can deliver; that creates some of the clashes that we see. Part of the problem is Ministers, not simply civil servants; you have got to address both. You cannot really produce a Civil Service that is fit for purpose unless you can do the same for Ministers.

Professor King: Can I add to that? There is a real problem of what I will call Ministerial hyperactivism: too many Ministers trying to do far too much, too quickly. That is a cultural change. Once upon a time you could get brownie points as a Minister for doing a pretty effective job of running your Department, and making incremental changes. Nowadays, whichever party you come from, you seem to think you are in business to change the world, or at least that bit of the world that affects you, and that obviously places great strains on the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, quite apart from leading to a fair quantum of rather bad policy.

Lord Norton of Louth: There is an allied point, which, of course, the Committee has addressed before, because the churn is not just churn of civil servants, it has been ministerial churn as well. Ministers come in and feel the need to achieve something in office, then they move on. Therefore, particularly each senior Minister has felt the need to have their big Bill, and so a lot has flowed from that. There has been no appreciation of Government, and not enough time. It has changed slightly with this Government, with people being in office a lot longer, but you are still dealing with people who quite often have had no prior experience.

Q630 Chair: We are concluding this line of questioning on a very fundamental and powerful point, which is the Civil Service Reform Plan seems to be something that Ministers are doing to the Civil Service, but you are all saying that the problem is one of governance rather than just the Civil Service, and Ministers are included in that. Therefore what Ministers do has got to be part of the solution.

Lord Norton of Louth: Exactly.

Professor King: And what they do not do.

Professor Flinders: One of the great challenges is that this is not about the future of the Civil Service, because the Civil Service is now just the centre of an incredibly complex delivery chain involving a whole range of different bodies. Unless you try to understand how those different bodies and layers fit together, the Civil Service at the centre will inevitably be troubled.

Q631 Chair: The Government is also looking at other models of Civil Service governance: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, and even the United States. Is this foray abroad relevant to the British situation?

Professor King: Could I just say in very general terms that forays abroad are almost always useful. I am struck by the fact that forays abroad by British Governments tend disproportionately to be forays into countries whose language people are familiar with. There are other examples that could be followed, apart from the old Empire and the United States. Specifically on the United States, that seems to me a wonderful case of-to use an American expression-how not to run a railroad. I would have thought lessons to be learned from the United States were few in number and tended to reinforce our way of doing things, rather than their way of doing things.

Chair: Anything to add?

Professor Flinders: No. I agree with what Professor King has just said.

Q632 Kelvin Hopkins: I am very interested in what you have just been saying; it is very perceptive, and I broadly agree with the points you have been making. I have asked this question to several groups of witnesses over time; my feeling is that what has changed is ideology in Government, and that the Civil Service was happy in a world where there was a hover between social democracy and onenation conservatism, and what Bob McKenzie used to call Butskellism. Now we are driving through a neo-liberal revolution, which is marketising, outsourcing, and putting at arm’s length Government responsibilities. The politicians are driving this, driven by an ideology that is quite different from the hover between onenation conservatism and social democracy, as was the case in the post-war era. Even between Macmillan and Wilson the differences were negligible, but they were substantially different from what we see now in Government, be they Blair or Cameron.

Professor King: Without any question that does make the job of your average senior civil servant much more difficult than it was in the past. That said, officials during the 1980s-when really all that began-the 1990s, and until now, have, by and large, coped pretty well; they have adapted to the change. However, my specific worry continues to be that precisely because Ministers are so certain of their cause-I will not call it their ideology, but their cause-and what they want to do, many of them are more reluctant to listen to people who tell them that in this specific case what they are trying to do is not well judged. That is my specific worry.

Q633 Kelvin Hopkins: I have often described what has been happening, particularly under the Blair Government and perhaps Thatcher as well, as a Leninist approach: hardcore centre, driving out ideas, with commissars at every level-you call them consultants, you might call them special advisers, but they are essentially commissars-driving the revolution. A feature of the permanent revolution keeping institutions and people off balance by constant churn, and by threatening and pushing. This is in the cause of capitalism rather than socialism, but the same process takes place.

Professor King: I would only say that reeks more of Stalin than of Lenin; Lenin was not around long enough to get very far with that.

Kelvin Hopkins: It was his theory of democratic centralism.

Lord Norton of Louth: One needs to distinguish, which I think was Professor King’s opening point, between an ideology or a view about how Government is conducted, and the ideology about what the policy should be delivering. One needs to distinguish, because you do not necessarily have strong ideological Governments, but they have a very clear view about the process of Government and how it should be delivered, which is the point you are getting at.

Professor Flinders: What is really interesting now is that there is a doublewhammy effect. I would not call it privatisation, but there is this clear shift towards alternative models of service delivery. The Civil Service is therefore changing the structure of the state, in Health, in Education, in all areas, while at the same time the Civil Service has itself been expected to change and contract itself out. The whole degree of flux and instability is so incredible.

There is also a certain mantra among some politicians that the state is still bad and other forms, as long as it is not the state, are good. Under this Government, it is not purely just the market; there are a whole range of different organisations that they are willing to explore floating off functions to. I have had many a conversation with Ministers where I have tried to explain, "Maybe the best thing for this is to leave it alone," and that is almost heretical to say.

Q634 Chair: Before we move on to the next question, I have two very short points to make: first, Francis Maude did go to France, to be fair to him; he has visited a nonEnglish speaking country, and I think he has also looked at Germany. Are there any particular countries that you think we should be looking towards?

Professor King: This is more a prejudice than a judgement based on a lot of evidence, but I think probably the best-governed countries in Europe tend to be the Nordic countries.

Q635 Chair: I think he has been there.

Professor King: My instinct would be: when in doubt, go first to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Q636 Chair: Professor Flinders just began to touch on whether the real problem here is the context of the 21st century and the next 20, 30 years. We talk a lot about the pressures of 24/7 media, but what about the 24/7 pressures of global events, of international relations, of the blurring of the distinction between domestic and foreign policy, of the sheer speed of technological developments, of the arrival of Taleb’s black swans, which seem to be becoming more frequent, and of the unpredictable nature of things like climate change, if it is happening, and international conflicts. Should we not be defining the context, and because this has become so complicated, how do we define the context in which we decide what sort of Civil Service we need for the 21st century?

Professor Flinders: That is a key point. Before going off and looking at any other countries, it is probably worth sitting down and thinking about this bigger picture, and about what it is we are trying to design a Civil Service to address. What is incredibly clear, and what is almost beyond discussion now, is that the challenges that the Civil Service was originally intended to address are not the challenges that they will be expected to address in the 21st century; there will be these new risks. They will not be the tangible issues like housing, poverty, and welfare. They will still be there, but the bigger challenges for the 21st century will be far more fluid. How the Civil Service is attempting to develop that resilience for less tangible, but no less important challenges, I am not sure.

Lord Norton of Louth: There is the broader context you are addressing, Mr Chairman, that expectations of Government are expanding as the capacity of Government to respond to them decreases. In the context you are mentioning, with the 24hour news media, the expectations of Government to be able to respond very quickly create a certain pressure on the Government to respond to the "something must be done" mentality. It is about how you deal with that and reduce expectations, so that Government can be realistic, otherwise it is constantly on the move, trying to deliver things, which it is never going to succeed in.

Professor King: This is going off on a little bit of a tangent, but one of the rather sad things about political discourse, not just in this country but probably throughout the liberal democratic world, is a reluctance on the part of politicians and other public servants to make it clear that they are dealing in a risky world and in a world of uncertainty. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that a very large proportion of the decisions they take cannot, in the nature of the case, be guaranteed to produce the results that they want them to produce.

Chair: A world of uncertainty and limited influence?

Professor King: Yes.

Chair: A very good point, yes.

Q637 Lindsay Roy: Good morning, gentleman. We have spoken about challenges and aspirations, and a Civil Service being fit for purpose. The Department for Education recently carried out a zerobased review to consider the tasks the Department should be carrying out. Why do you think that such a review was deemed necessary? Indeed, was it necessary?

Professor Flinders: We are in a time that is a bit like the public bodies reform agenda, when all public bodies had to go through this existential test of whether they were still necessary. There might be some functions where you think, "Of course they are still necessary", but posing that question across the whole of Government might unexpectedly throw up issues about relationships, roles, or synergies that might be exploited. The Department for Education is a very good example, because one of the great challenges at the moment is, just as Government is being expected to do more, and the hub at the centre of the model was expected to manage more and more relationships, most Departments are getting smaller. We are reducing the strategic capacity of the centre, while expecting it to do more coordination and control. I am not sure I answered you question as well as I might; I will hand over to Professor Norton.

Lord Norton of Louth: It comes back to a point we have discussed in this Committee before, which relates to the number of Ministers, never mind how you structure the Civil Service. The starting point is not how many Ministers you need or, indeed, how many civil servants you need and the role they take, you should start by considering what you expect of Government: what are the functions? What do you expect to deliver? What should then flow from that is how you structure Departments, the number of Ministers required to deliver on that, and the number of officials and the type of officials, and their role, in order to produce that.

The other thing you need to address as well-which the reform plan touched upon- is looking at it from a crossGovernment point of view as well, and getting away from a silo mentality, so you can deliver the functions in the most efficient way possible.

Q638 Lindsay Roy: In essence, you are saying there is less value when it is apparently very narrowly focused and it does not look to the future. What are the other shortcomings of the zerobased review?

Lord Norton of Louth: Is that in relation to Government as a whole?

Lindsay Roy: Yes.

Lord Norton of Louth: The point I was making in the paper, in trying to move it just beyond looking at the Civil Service, is the point you have already stressed: looking at it from the point of view of good Government, which is governance. Therefore, you start from the point of Government, and you make sure that the Ministers, as well as the officials, know what is expected of them and how they can do their job. This relates to some of the points that Mr Hopkins was addressing, because if you reform the Civil Service, that by itself might be necessary, but it is not sufficient. If you are going to have an effective Civil Service, you need effective Ministers, who know how to make use of the Civil Service, and understand what is expected of them, never mind the civil servants.

The point I made in my note is that historically, the form of Government we have had is that we have had the generalist as a civil servant. The problem is we have had the Minister as a generalist as well, and that has been part of the problem; neither has been trained or has had any grounding in what their role is. It has been on-the-job training as far as it is training. They might acquire some degree of specialisation, but that is not expertise. That is what we have got to look at; it has got to be governance as a whole, and what you expect Government to deliver, rather than starting at one part, changing that, and ignoring the rest.

Professor King: I think Philip Norton would be the first to agree that someone who practised an activity, that was not then called zero-based budgeting, very successfully, was one of the most effective Ministers of modern times, Michael Heseltine. He clearly had it in mind at all points that the first question you had to ask is, "What should this Department be doing, and how can it do whatever it decides to do, or I decide it should do, both effectively and efficiently?"

Professor Flinders: One of the very interesting things is that when the coalition came to power, one of the things that Francis Maude did very well was initiate this big review of public bodies and the whole landscape. What that turned out was over 900 bodies, about which many Departments did not really even know existed. One of the things we have lost in Whitehall is what we used to call landscape reviews or end-to-end reviews, which was a look right from the centre, all the way from where the money goes, right to how it was delivered to the member of the public. Having this landscape review revealed an incredible structure of confusion, fragmentation, and overlap, and often allowed for a high amount of streamlining to happen. Currently we have gone back to another system where we look at each organisation on its own, as part of a triennial review. Having some mechanism to keep an eye on the bigger picture overall would be incredibly valuable for everybody. What we are saying overall is not that we need a shift from generalists to specialists; it is not one or the other. It is that at the moment the balance is not quite right for the challenges that we face.

Q639 Lindsay Roy: To what extent did this review contribute to the bigger picture? What have been the positive outcomes from this education review, and lessons learned that can be transferred?

Professor King: I am in the very strong position of being able to answer simply and straightforwardly: I do not know. It is not something that I personally have pursued.

Lord Norton of Louth: It can be very valuable, because it draws attention to what else needs to be done, so you could see it as addressing one part of the jigsaw, but as long as you recognise that that is what it is. If we are going to reform the Civil Service, a consequence is we have got to look at the ministerial side as well. To some extent, the plan just touches upon that; I think there is an implicit acknowledgement of it, but it does not follow through. If the plan is to be effective, you have to have in place Ministers who know how to utilise the Civil Service once it has been reformed; otherwise, what is the point of the exercise?

Lindsay Roy: It is something we can perhaps pursue again another time, Chairman.

Chair: Yes, certainly.

Q640 Robert Halfon: If the Government said that it was going to close the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation, and bring its functions within other Departments, would business collapse in this country?

Professor King: That is a wonderful hypothetical question. You are asking us to judge the performance of the Department of-what is it called this week? It used to be the DTI. The answer is that I do not have sufficient specialist knowledge to be able to do that. I have heard the officials in that Department described as a bunch of defrocked librarians, which is probably rather too strong. I am a great believer in the pragmatism of judging an organisation like that by its results, and by the efficiency with which it achieves those results. I think that most people running businesses in the UK probably would not greet with favour the idea of a Department being wound up that is specifically tasked with being concerned about business, growth, and so forth.

Q641 Robert Halfon: The premise of my question is a larger issue; that is one example. Do we need all these Departments? Do we need a Department for Culture, for example? Do we still need a Scottish Department, and so on and so forth?

Lord Norton of Louth: I would agree with the premise of the question, and it comes back to the point I was making. There are two points I would make. The first one is that the starting point ought to be: what do you expect of Government? What are the functions? Therefore you think: what is the best way to structure that in terms of delivery of Departments? It may be that you do not need so many Departments; it may be more efficient to have fewer anyway, because then you avoid the silo mentalities, or the discrete nature of Departments we have got.

The other point, once you have got that, flows from something that Professor King has just touched upon, which is to achieve some degree of stability in the structure of Government. As he touched upon, BIS has had different manifestations, and that creates problems. If you need to review it, your starting point ought to be about what you expect of Government and the functions, and then craft Departments appropriate to that. Ideally, then have some steady state, so that it is not just at the whim of the Prime Minister thinking that we ought to change a Department here or there, which may be some change of functions, it may be for more political purposes, or purpose of patronage. Get in place some stability, once you have started from the understanding of the structure of Government: you think about the house you want, rather than the house that is the product of different rooms that have been created.

Q642 Robert Halfon: Could Government not just have a beefedup Sports Council or a beefedup Arts Council, rather than have a whole Department, for example, and save quite a bit of money each year?

Lord Norton of Louth: Quite possibly, but my point is that I would not start from the bottom up, but from the point view of what you need from Government. Your point is about thinking of it as well in terms of what the responsibility of Government is, how much of it should be within the gift of Government, whether it can be hived off, and crafting the structure within Government, or taking it out of Government for that purpose.

Q643 Robert Halfon: Do you think that Government does what you are suggesting: thinks strategically about what Departments it needs? Do a lot of Departments just exist because of the politics of the time?

Lord Norton of Louth: It is the latter; I do not think there is much strategic thought, certainly not standing back and thinking about governance as a whole, not even thinking within a particular policy sector. You very rarely see the adoption of the approach I mentioned in my paper in relation to looking at the Civil Service, which is thinking about what the strategy is and where you want to be in five or 10 years’ time, and then crafting the programme to deliver that. It is too much a response to events or it is a particular policy, rather than thinking overall, "What is the strategy we want to achieve? How do we get there?"

Professor Flinders touched upon Michael Heseltine, who was the sort who would be the closest coming to that type of approach, but it is very rare. It is more coming back to the point I was making in response to the Chairman. It is too much the immediacy of someone coming into office, feeling there is a "something must be done" mentality, or "I must have my big Bill," rather than taking the longterm view, which Ministers are not good at, because, for political reasons, they take the shortterm view. They are not thinking, "Where do we want to be in this area in five or 10 years’ time?"

Q644 Robert Halfon: Do you think coalition politics means that we are likely to have more Ministers and more Departments, rather than less? It makes it much harder to reduce them, because of the political realities?

Professor Flinders: There is a clear inflationary dynamic. British Government is not good at strategic thinking or planning. If we go back to the metaphor of a house, what we tend to do is have a house, and we never think of knocking it down and building a new one; we will put an addon here, and we will go into the attic, and then we will build a tower. What we have ended up with is an incredibly labyrinthine structure, where very few people understand how it works, or even what bits of the house are still there, or who is in them.

There is a great degree of politics here that Prime Ministers need to find positions for certain MPs. Once you have built an organisation it often creates its own lobby coalition to keep it in existence, and a lot of politics is about firefighting; it is not about sitting back and strategically thinking about where we are going, or why.

There is a great inflationary dynamic, but if you take the issue about the territorial Departments, there would be no obvious clear rational reason for still having all those different Departments. If you were to take a comparative perspective, most countries in a similar position would have brought them together in one post. If you look in the private sector, any managing board of a large organisation would never have 22 or 24 people sat around a table on the board. I understand that recently the Cabinet Office in Number 10 had to make the table even bigger to fit everybody round; it was getting so squeezed. These are issues of politics as well as of redesigning the state.

Q645 Robert Halfon: When I was a student reading all your political books I used to know the name of every Government Department and every Minister, and now I am an MP, I cannot remember the name of every Minister and Government Department.

Chair: You are too busy.

Robert Halfon: I would describe myself as somewhat of a political anorak, but I genuinely cannot remember who does Energy and Climate Change, or whatever it is. It seems to me there is a spaghetti of Government Departments; there does not seem to be any logical rationale behind it, and they are created for political reasons, rather than for the best reasons for the country.

Professor King: There is quite a long of history of people deciding that there should be fewer and bigger Departments, joinedup within Departments. It very frequently happens that when a Prime Minister sets out to achieve that effect, as Ted Heath did in 1970, he or-well not she, I think-he discovers that perhaps that has not been such a good idea, and suddenly a Department of Energy is floated off. Going back to the point that Professor Norton was making, it is very difficult-to use the cliché-to strike a balance between, on the one hand, having stability and looking forward, and on the other hand, having to respond to new events.

Incidentally, my hunch is that if one abolished a number of Departments, one would quite quickly find oneself somehow or other reinventing a lot of them. There are jobs out there that people in Government feel they need to tackle, and they need to have an organisational structure for doing that.

Lord Norton of Louth: There are two points I would make in response. First, to add to your point, you have difficulty now remembering what the Departments are; I would not be at all surprised if you had a similar phenomenon in relation to the Ministers, in terms of remembering who they all are, because there is such a churn with Ministers as well. That is also part of the problem.

The other point I was going to make is to do with the reason the change takes place; it is partly political in terms of finding slots for people, and so on, but there is a tendency on the part of Government, if the policy is not working, and things are not going right-I regard it as a displacement activity-to think about structural change. That sometimes seems to be the easy answer: "Let us change this part of the structure, let us change Departments, let us change the electoral system", or whatever, as a way of addressing problems that are deeper and more complex.

Q646 Robert Halfon: The Government came in saying that they were not going to make any structural change to the previous Government, because they did not want more upheaval. Was the real reason because of the political realities of coalition, rather than that they just did not want another upheaval?

Professor King: I think that is a little hard on the present Administration. My strong impression is that they were persuaded, in Opposition, that, for the kinds of reasons that Philip Norton has alluded to, it was not a good idea to arrive on the scene and start thinking that you were achieving something if you were rebuilding the Government. This Government, on the whole, has been rather restrained. It has not been restrained with regard to quangos and so on and so forth, but it is fair to say, is it not, that all the Government Departments that existed May 2010, rightly or wrongly, still exist much in their present form?

Q647 Robert Halfon: If you were in charge, what would you then say to Government to do in terms of all these Departments and Ministers? If you had a plan to give them, what would you argue for?

Professor Flinders: I would go back to something that this Committee has made an argument for several times in the past; that what we do not have at the moment is any overview plan of how Government works or how it is structured; it does not exist. What we have are a number of very specialist documents about one different organisational form, so the world beyond Departments, which is where most policies are delivered and where most people work, is an unknown landscape.

One really simple, obvious thing would be for the Government to produce one directory of governance that for the first time set out exactly what organisations exist, with what relationship to Ministers, and why they exist. The Committee has asked for that several times, and it has always been politely declined. In a sense, we had a big opportunity here. The Cabinet Office has been transformed under the Coalition; generally transformed positively in that it is more strategic, and has a much stronger strategic grip across Whitehall.

The opportunity that was missed-and this was really building on a report from the Institute for Government, that underlined the complete complexity of the structure-was that the new Government had an opportunity to simplify the structure of Government in a onceinageneration way. It was not taken. You talk about Departments, but you have not mentioned non-ministerial Departments, which are the most bizarre organisation you could ever imagine.

Lord Norton of Louth: On your basic point about coalition Government, there has been more stability and there has been less churn, although you are quite right to say that the number of people sat round the Cabinet table has expanded quite significantly. That is not so much because the size of the Cabinet has increased; it is because the number of Ministers who are eligible to attend Cabinet has increased, and it has become extraordinarily crowded.

On the broader point, although I do not want to get too tied up with the analogy with the house, it is a very useful one in terms of what we are saying, in that there is no blueprint; there are no plans for the house, so it is very difficult to make sense of, and that could be a good starting point-to stand back and say, "What sort of house do you want?" First, there is an exciting cartography in making sense of what we have got.

Q648 Robert Halfon: I am asking about the sort of house you want. What would you do if you were in charge? Would you cut down on Ministries? Which ones?

Lord Norton of Louth: I come back to my point that I would not start with numbers at all; I would start with what you expect of Government. At the risk of doing the analogy to death, do you want a bungalow or a two or threestorey house? It is what you expect: what is it meant to deliver?

Q649 Robert Halfon: What do you think it should deliver? What would you like to do?

Lord Norton of Louth: I have not set myself up yet as a Royal Commission to produce what the limits of Government are. You could start by considering what the essential basics of Government are: what is it there to deliver? Then you produce your Departments and Ministers in a Department, which do necessarily need to be that numerous. Coming back to what Professor King touched upon, you need Ministers who are quite confident in their ability to lead to be able to lead, which quite often means you do not need a lot of junior Ministers. Then you need the Civil Service that can deliver, but not just deliver in the sense that the reform plan is dealing with, which is very much a managerial concentration, apart from action 5. It also needs to focus upon understanding the subject itself, because, if you are going to engage with experts you have got to have some understanding of the subject in order to know what to ask them, and to evaluate the quality of the answers.

Q650 Chair: Before we go on to the next question about political appointments, would it not be helpful if the Government recognised the need for this overarching philosophy of Government? Is it not extraordinary that the Government seems to repudiate the very idea of such highlevel strategic thinking, and writing down an albeit constantlyevolving plan, but some kind of a plan that reflects that philosophy of Government? Why do you think Governments-it is not just this Government-despite the previous Prime Minister but one’s Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, have become almost hostile to this style of analysis, assessment and planning?

Professor King: Part of the answer to that question is they have not realised there was a need. One forgets that for a very long period of time the responsibilities of Governments were very considerable indeed, but they were not expanding exponentially. The world was somewhat less complicated then than it is now, and people were content, by and large, if you came into power in 1959, or you came into power in 1964, to change the central direction of policy within the kind of bounds that were mentioned earlier on, but you did not feel any need to think hard about what Government was for.

Q651 Chair: Paradoxically, the very complexity of the modern world militates, in their minds, against having such a strategy or planning in such a way, because they say that it is too complicated, you cannot get it all on to one piece of paper, and it changes too quickly, so there is no point.

Professor Flinders: What they tend to say to me is that there are no votes in it. They also say that one of the problems is that the Ministers live in a time of attack politics, where responding to a problem by saying, "We are going to hold a review and look at the structure. This will take time, but this is what we are doing", is seen as a very weak response to make, in the current climate.

Q652 Chair: In a five-year Parliament not doing it seems to have a very high price.

Lord Norton of Louth: I agree. I completely concur with what is being said. It is what we have touched on already: that feeling of a need to respond quickly-the quick fix, and the feeling that you must be seen to be doing something. If you look at the Civil Service, over time there have been plenty of initiatives, plans come up, but very rarely a fullscale proper review that has identified the role of the Civil Service. I agree with Professor Flinders: nowadays it would not be seen as having any votes in it, and there is that difficulty of getting it set up to take time.

Q653 Kelvin Hopkins: Would you not agree that areas that exemplify what you have been saying about building a house and adding roof conversions, extra garages, and making them look rather awkward Heath Robinson affairs, include the school system? Every town has a different system, and it is completely chaotic; you cannot compare, because they are so different. The other area is benefits; no other country in Europe has three different major Government Departments delivering benefits, with some agencies as well. Having one Government Department that just deals with benefits, and one office where people go to, and one system of benefits for everybody, which everybody can understand, would be a sensible way of doing things, but nobody dare do it.

Professor Flinders: You could take the same thing to local government as well. Nobody would have started off designing the complex structure of local authorities that we have in this country at the moment. Governments come and go, and they inherit a system under great pressure to be seen to be delivering positive changes. Maybe one of the questions for the Committee to think about is how, in a sense, you provide a bit of sensible safe space in which to think about these issues properly.

I do think there is a window of opportunity. I spend a lot of time with senior civil servants in the Treasury and in the Cabinet Office. I am very impressed with them. They are very aware of the need. At the moment they have a secondlevel Civil Service plan, but above that they need a broader strategic view of where they are going and how the plan fits within it. You cannot de-politicise it, but to take out the heat, to allow some sensible thinking to take place, would be a good thing. The ridiculous thing is that the whole managerial thrust is about streamlining Government, and whatever the opposite to streamlined Government would be, I am afraid we have it at the moment.

Professor King: Mr Chairman, could I put down a marker that at some point I would like to go back to the question of the rapid turnover of officials within the Civil Service? This may not be the right moment to do that. I do not think that subject has been exhausted. It has been referred to often in evidence that you have taken, but there is more to be said about it.

Q654 Robert Halfon: I want to talk about whether or not there should be a politicised Civil Service, and whether or not you think there should be more special advisers of the political variety, rather than less?

Professor King: The answer there is that there are a number of models that you can find in different countries. You can make out quite a strong case that a Department might function better if it were acknowledged that the Secretary of State was entitled to form a cabinet, to use a common continental term, which would be effectively the board of the Department, comprising him or herself, possibly one or two junior Ministers-ideally fewer than there are now-together with special advisers, some of whom might well be, and probably should be, experts in the substance of the matters being dealt with by the Department.

In other words, I would not think that one had to maintain the status quo in a rigorous sort of way, as occasionally Philip Norton’s colleague, Lord Hennessy, gives the impression he would ideally like to do. That said, there is everything to be said for having a large welltrained body of people who are there to carry on the business of Government, irrespective of which political party is in power. The example of the United States really is horrifying for the kinds of reasons that other witnesses have described. Could you envisage a situation in which there was a larger political input into the conduct of Government? Yes. But would it be a good idea to create a Civil Service in which, to get ahead, you had to be a member of a political party, or show every indication of being in deep sympathy with a political party? That would make, in both the short term and the long term, for bad Government.

I incline, by the way, to the view, as regards Permanent Secretaries, that Ministers already have a very large say in who their Permanent Secretary is going to be. One of the oddities of the Civil Service Reform Plan was that it seemed not to acknowledge, as some of your other witnesses have said, that Ministers have always been involved in this. If you made the appointments in any more direct sense appointments by the Secretary of State, you might well increase the chances of their making wonderful mistakes. In the one pretty senior appointment in the public sector I was involved in, the person in charge of the organisation eventually decided on the person with whom he could work, and it happened to be the wrong person, somebody who should not have been chosen.

Much more to the point, if the current Secretary of State had a predominant say in who the next Permanent Secretary was going to be, there would be a real risk that he would choose somebody who would not be acceptable to his or her successor of the same party, let alone his or her successor of a different party. The balance, at the moment, between the political input and the official input is probably about right. I would say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Q655 Robert Halfon: The Prime Minister has had a lot of criticism for not having enough political advisers, because of the commitments made before the election, and particularly the Downing Street operation, which they say, as you know is full of civil servants writing policy rather than a traditional Number 10 policy unit. The Deputy Prime Minister has recently faced a lot of criticism for appointing a significant number of special advisers when they argued that he was not able to do what he did. What is the answer? It is like a marmite situation; people either love or hate special advisers, but there is a view out there that more of them are needed, and that is why the Government falls into the political traps that have happened in the past couple of years.

Lord Norton of Louth: I am not sure if more are needed. It might be that it is quality rather than quantity that counts. The key point to make is that special advisers used properly, appointed properly, do have a role; they can be extremely important in maintaining the depoliticisation of the Civil Service, because they can absorb the political side of what the Ministry is doing, and they can advise accordingly. The good special advisers are the ones who are never seen publicly. They can work, and in various cases have worked, extraordinarily well. I should declare an interest, because several of my graduates are special advisers.

Do not forget that there are two types of special advisers: there is the political special adviser, and, if you like, there is the expert special adviser as well. It is using those effectively by Ministers that bolsters the Ministers, but also serves to protect the civil servants, and that is extraordinarily important.

Robert Halfon: Should political advisers be policy wonks, of which there are plenty in the Civil Service?

Q656 Chair: Can I just intervene on that question? What about the other exempted posts under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010-the specialist advisers? This is something I am personally rather attracted to; the idea of taking over defence procurement, without your own personal adviser on the 800 programmes to spend billions of pounds, seems to me a very great challenge. Do we think this is open to abuse and politicisation, or do we think this is a good idea?

Professor Flinders: The problem is that special advisers have become almost demonised, there is the idea that they are a bad thing, and it is hard to have a sensible conversation about them. If you, as I am sure many of us in the room do, spend a lot of time with Ministers, talking to them about their day-to-day life, the impression I always get is that Ministers, strangely enough, often feel very isolated. They are not specialists in the topic for which they are responsible; they have very little counterweight with which to challenge the views that might be coming up from the Department, and therefore having a small number of specialist advisers who can play into providing that broad range of viewpoints and challenge the Department, is very helpful.

The big issue-and it goes back to the house and the blueprint-is that special advisers evolved in an ad hoc, typically nontransparent British way. In a sense, what we need to do is be honest about them, set out very clearly what they do and why, and bring them into the sunlight.

Q657 Kelvin Hopkins: I have made the point many times about special advisers: anybody in politics wants somebody they can trust and talk to about policies, but having them as a stratum between Ministers and civil servants and giving orders to civil servants is something quite different. In the Department for Education, recently we have had press reports of abusive language, of swearing, and of bullying, by special advisers to civil servants. That is completely inappropriate.

Lord Norton of Louth: Yes, special advisers should not be seen as a stratum between the Minister and Civil Service. They are at one side to the Minister; the direct line is Minister, to the Permanent Secretary, to the Civil Service. The adviser is advising the Minister, and should have no role directly in relation to officials.

Q658 Chair: If we were to have a more political Civil Service-and I use the term "more", because we should be honest with ourselves: we are on a spectrum; we are not on an absolute-what constitutional countervailing changes would that require us to have? Professor King, you are very strong in your book on what a stabilising influence in our constitutional settlement the Civil Service has been for the last 150 years.

Professor King: On this particular point, I am a small "c" conservative. There are problems connected with the Civil Service. There are problems connected with its future, but the notion that democratically elected Ministers should be able to draw on disinterested, dispassionate advice-

Chair: And their patronage should be limited.

Professor King: -and to be able to count on those people, at the end of the day, to do what they have been asked to do, is very important indeed. There is a great deal to be said for not expanding the volume of patronage, and for not changing fundamentally the character of the Civil Service as it now stands. It is one of the institutions in this country that still seems to function in the way it was meant to function, and is still very important to the constitutional structure that we have.

Q659 Chair: If we did change it, what would the consequence be? What would we have to do?

Professor King: It would depend, as you said, on where you were on the spectrum, but the consequence of doing that would be to reduce the quality of the intake of people into the Civil Service; it would be to expand, as you suggested yourself, the quantity of patronage available to Ministers; it would mean that, if Ministers changed, they would want to change their people; and if the party in power changed, they would want a substantial turnover. This happens on a pretty limited scale in a number of countries in Europe but, again, the horrible example is that of the United States, where patronage reigns and where very large numbers of jobs are being done by people who have no capacity to do those jobs but have been put there by an incoming President in order to pay off political debts. I think there is a real risk of that happening in this country. When I say "a real risk", I think there is a real downside risk. I think the probability of that happening is probably not very great.

Professor Flinders: I am more willing to consider allowing Ministers to have a more formalised role. I do not think it is one or the other. They would only have a choice of a shortlist that has been through the Civil Service Commission anyway. The rationalities of politics would make it very unusual if they were to try to appoint a crony or someone who did not have the specialist skills. Given that Government tends to work when it has relationships in place, rather than just institutions, and given that we are already admitting that Ministers have a role in senior appointments, it seems odd to say, "Well, we will just leave this muddle as it is," and that "Ministers have some sort of role but we will just leave it."

Lord Norton of Louth: I am not sure what would flow, because the implication of your question is that you get rid of section 10.2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. I am not quite sure how far it would go then, in terms of the extent of political patronage. As Professor King said, it would make a fundamental difference to the way we operate, without any clear benefits to that. On the specific point about the role of Ministers, as I put in my note, there is not just a political problem; there is an HR issue as well. They are not necessarily qualified to engage in that sort of appointment.

Q660 Alun Cairns: Because the only time special advisers come into the news is as a result of some sort of scandal where they have overstepped the mark, has that tarnished the public’s view of special advisers and where they can provide a pragmatic, supportive, robust role to challenge both the Minister, in his or her thinking, and the Civil Service?

Lord Norton of Louth: Yes, I agree with that. My point was that a good special adviser is someone you do not see in the public domain. If you do, there is a problem, and people tend to generalise from what appears in the public domain. There is a negative perception of special advisers, whereas my point was I see them as fulfilling an extraordinarily valuable role within Government. If you recruit good people and they fulfil that role, which, as I say, is to almost absorb the politics of it, so it keeps the Civil Service out of it, then it is invaluable. As has been touched upon, if a Minister can appoint someone they trust, that is the link. It is someone they can sound out and someone who can feed in from a party point of view, not having any contact with the Civil Service at all; it is advising and helping the Minister. They have no executive role at all. It is purely the Minister who makes the decisions. In that case, I think it is very good because it helps the Minister and it helps the civil servants because it keeps them, if you like, out of the politics. They are not expected to do things that a special adviser can absorb and address.

Professor King: If special advisers did not exist, they would be invented tomorrow, and they have been around a long time.

Q661 Robert Halfon: If I could just challenge you, you said twice that it is better that special advisers are not in the public headlines, but as long as it is not negative, why does it matter whether they are in the public headlines or not? If it is in a positive way, why can they not act as a voice for the Minister?

Lord Norton of Louth: Ministers, presumably, have a voice of their own. It is the Minister who is the person who takes the decisions. Having taken the decision, it is departmental policy and you have a departmental press office that can announce and deal with things. The special adviser is someone who should not be in the public domain.

Q662 Robert Halfon: Why?

Lord Norton of Louth: Because it is the Minister’s role. The Minister is the Minister. The special adviser is not a Deputy Minister. They cannot act in any executive capacity. It should be somebody who can give internal advice but political advice, in the same way that officials do, and their value is their anonymity, I suppose. You want somebody who can just operate within the Minister’s private domain, and you can have a proper discourse, rather than someone who then becomes the public face and people start questioning the special adviser, rather than the Minister.

Professor Flinders: The really important thing with the special advisers, I think, is that we need to find different names that allow us to distinguish between the policy advisers and the media advisers. I think most people would say the policy advisers fulfil an incredibly valuable role; with the media advisers it is spin, it is sleaze and it is slightly more edgy and more political-the dark arts. I think if we could somehow tease those roles apart and classify them differently, we would put a number of worries to bed. In relation to special advisers being in the news, the role of the special adviser is to be an internal sounding board and challenge board, and not to represent the Department on behalf of Ministers or civil servants. As soon as they do that, the immediate question from the Opposition will be, "Who is running the Department?"

Q663 Kelvin Hopkins: We have touched on this implicitly and explicitly already, but it is an open-ended question: what are the strengths and weaknesses of the current system of ministerial accountability?

Professor Flinders: I will have a quick go at that. There are a lot of strengths, and the strength is that, no matter what people say about Ministers not being accountable and politicians being Teflon-coated, if you are a Minister you know that, very clearly, you are the lightning rod for whatever goes wrong in your Department, or any of those bodies or agencies that are sponsored by your Department. Whatever happens, you will be called to account in front of the House for what went wrong. The problems come when you go to a deeper form of accountability which is about ascribing blame between the various actors or organisations that allowed something to go wrong, because Ministers will, quite understandably-I can understand their position-say, "I could not realistically have had anything to do with this fiasco at all, but I am accountable to put things right and will do it".

The problem we have at the moment is what is called ‘the problem of many hands’: our delivery chains are so complicated that, when something goes wrong, it is very hard to tease apart who were the main people who should be culpable, if anybody. We also do live in an environment where, whatever happens, we want a scalp, we want it quickly and we want it tomorrow. That does lead to some quite serious issues about the blame games.

Lord Norton of Louth: I would agree with Professor Flinders in the sense that I think it does have a tremendous number of advantages, not least that it establishes the line control of the Minister who is responsible for the Department and is, therefore, answerable to the Department. Too much stress has been placed on culpability for when things go wrong: should the Minister fall on his sword? They very rarely do-there is no history of that. Really, it should be the Minister ensuring that things are in place to deal with the problems.

I think, if there is a problem, I would stress that it is not so much the accountability; it is the ministerial aspect of it. For ministerial accountability to be effective, you need good Ministers who know how to manage the Department, who know how to ensure things are done and who can take advice, but then someone who has the confidence to answer for that, because they are ultimately answerable. Sometimes, there is a problem because the Minister is the weak link in the chain. It is how you address that, and I would focus on strength in the Minister rather than changing the constitutional position of the Minister. I do not think, in terms of the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibilities, there is a problem with the doctrine.

Q664 Kelvin Hopkins: There is another question about the level of trust between Ministers and officials. I remember a very significant change when a Minister who was loyal to Blair and in the Blair Government openly blamed her civil servants, she got away with it and is now a colleague of yours in the House of Lords. It was a very significant change, and a lot of civil servants must have felt, "This is a change". Has that damaged trust between them?

Lord Norton of Louth: Yes, that was my point. The problem there was not the doctrine, but the Minister. That is why we need Ministers who understand their constitutional responsibilities, and that is what I was stressing in my note. Ministers need to have some degree of training, not just in management but in understanding their constitutional role. Civil servants need the same, so that they understand how they stand in relation to Ministers and in relation to Parliament; that is a very strong area they need to be trained in. I think it is true of Ministers as well. They need to come in and to understand what their role is. Part of the problem is that some come in not just without any training but with no experience of Government. Sometimes, therefore, their expectations are somewhat inflated in terms of what can be achieved, and sometimes they have no understanding of what the relationship is between a Minister and officials. You do not blame your officials. You are answerable for what happens. If things go wrong, you put mechanisms in place to make sure that they do not happen again, and you are then answerable for that.

Q665 Alun Cairns: The Civil Service Reform Plan talks about a smaller, pacier, less hierarchical Civil Service. I think the general phrase is "modernisation"-about making it flatter and more like the private sector. Is that suitable for the Civil Service, because the Civil Service is not the private sector?

Lord Norton of Louth: I think your last point is important. I think we do need to remember-and you are quite right-that Government is somewhat distinct from running a firm, so you can draw certain things, perhaps, from business but you also have to realise that Government is a very distinct entity. With regard to what you have outlined in terms of what is meant to be achieved, to some extent you can move in that direction. I do not think you can flatten it out too much; you need some degree of hierarchy, if you like, so that you have answerability through the Permanent Secretary to the Minister. I think that is still important.

In terms of what it seeks to achieve, I have not too much problem with the aspect you have identified. I am more concerned with how to get from here to there, and whether the plan is identifying the mechanisms by which you are going to achieve it, and, coming back to an earlier point, identifying where you want to be in five or 10 years’ time with the Civil Service: how are we going to get from here to there? The much broader point is how that then fits in with our much broader view of governance. If you reform the Civil Service, how are you going to make use of it effectively if you are not, at the same time, reforming Government itself so that Ministers know how to make use of the Civil Service?

Professor King: Can I just add two points to that quickly? One is simply that an awful lot of that can be achieved by individual Ministers. If you talk to Ministers-and Professor Flinders has been talking to Ministers quite a lot recently-you quickly find that some of them achieve something much less hierarchical, very quickly, by inviting to come to see them people who are in operational charge of something much further down. A lot of that can be achieved informally and always has been.

The other point that I do think one has to bear in mind is that there are political risks in all of this. If civil servants are accused, as they often are, of being reluctant to take risks, it is hardly surprising, given that they know that, in our system, the Minister will carry the can and they will suffer even if they are not named in public. The whole business of democratic politics makes the people engaged in democratic politics somewhat risk-averse, for perfectly understandable reasons. They do not want to read about themselves in an adverse light in the newspaper the next morning.

Q666 Alun Cairns: It was said to me once that a civil servant will lose their job because the bureaucracy or the paperwork has not been completed appropriately, but a Minister or a businessman will lose their job because they do not get the right outcome. Is that a fair statement, bearing in mind the statements you just made about riskaversion?

Professor King: There certainly are questions to be asked, and they are frequently asked. They are asked, to some extent, in the Civil Service Reform Plan, of the extent to which behaving in an excessively risk-averse fashion and trying to avoid trouble for oneself in getting all the paperwork absolutely right can, indeed, be a problem. Effective Ministers work to try to make sure that their officials do not operate in that fashion. It is all very well for people like the three of us to say that junior officials should behave in a certain manner, but it is a very risky environment.

Professor Flinders: What is interesting about the Civil Service Reform Plan and the language you just used that is imbued within it is that it is well known. It is just a managerial model of the state about reinventing Government, but it is being pushed a lot harder now within the system as it currently stands. The issue, really, is about risk and resilience. At the moment, I think we are trying to implement a structural reform plan based around alternative models of service delivery that exist at arm’s length from Ministers. Old quangos are bad; we do not want those, but what we will do is we will reinvent Government into new forms of arm’s length bodies, be they mutualisations or Government-owned companies or whatever, but we do not yet understand that managing in that way demands new skills and new cultures.

The culture of the Civil Service at the top, if we are honest, is still about working with Ministers, it is about policymaking, and it is about being in this wonderful building. Being seen as a good administrator and a good manager is still not seen as a Premiership-level skill to have. One of the things I am always taken by when I work with private companies and local government is, when there is a new initiative or a new project, a set of officials will be put on it from the beginning and they will be expected to see it through the whole process to evaluation and implementation, which might take six or seven years. Those officials know that they are in charge, that they will be in charge, and that they are responsible. In Whitehall, within year 1, you will have probably gone through a whole team of officials, and that is the real problem that we have at the moment: this constant churn and movement. For people beyond the system, it is almost a full-time job. You said about people not knowing what Departments exist. The whole system seems incredibly fluid.

Professor King: Can I pick up on that and pick up the point I put a marker down about beforehand? Quite a few witnesses have referred to churn. I have been struck by the fact that they have tended to talk about churn and turnover at the top: four Permanent Secretaries in the Department for Transport since May 2010. They have also tended to talk about the unfortunate consequences of high rates of turnover having to do with negotiating contracts, with project-management, with outsourcing, with procurement and so on. It seems to me, as Professor Flinders has already indicated, that the problem is not just at the top; it goes much further down, and it does not have just to do with these activities, but almost all Government activities.

I talked to a Minister in the last Government once who had a bee in his bonnet about a project he wanted to pursue, and he said to me ruefully that, in a relatively short period of time-say a couple of years-he had had six officials assigned to work on this sequentially. None of them was there for very long. Only one of them mastered the brief. By the time he did that, he was ripe for promotion and he moved off to another Department. As Professor Flinders was saying, all of us must have anecdotal experience of people telling us that they have been along to the Ministry of Justice or the Department for Education-you name it-and they have found themselves working with officials who simply lack the knowledge. Forget about institutional memory. A lot is talked about institutional memory, and it is important. I am not downplaying it, but at least as important is having officials who know a lot, or at least enough, about the substance of that with which they are dealing.

As Professor Flinders indicated a moment ago, you talk to people in private-sector companies and to people in NGOs, and they complain endlessly that they go to a meeting, where there are at least a couple of officials who know nothing about the subject at all. They brief them carefully and they go to the equivalent meeting two or three months later and find themselves with a completely different collection of people. It seems to me that one of the central flaws of the Civil Service Reform Plan is that it is schizoid on this. It makes a great deal of the desirability of moving people around so that they acquire a wide variety of different skills on the one hand; on the other hand, it says that it is very important to have the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

There is, however, a real tension between people moving every six months over a period of years, sometimes within a Department but doing very different jobs, and sometimes to another Department, on the one hand, and having the right people in the right jobs at the right time. I think, at the moment, there is a central problem of excessive turnover within the Civil Service and among civil servants. Too many officials are not the right people in the right job at the right time. Take the obvious example, but not the only one: the West Coast Main Line.

Q667 Chair: Thank you for saying all that, because we are very much seized of that problem, and the reason we have not perhaps dwelt on it is we have dwelt on that problem quite a lot, but I am grateful for you putting that on the record, because that reinforces what we must say in our report.

Can I move on to the final question? It is more about how we should go about our business-not we, PASC, but we, Parliament. In a very informative brief I have in front of me, I am amused to read that the Fulton Committee was established on the recommendation of a Select Committee, but also amused to read what the then Prime Minister said when he accepted the recommendation. He said, "At the outset, however, I should like to make two points", and the first was, "The decision to set up this committee does not mean that the Civil Service has been found lacking in any way by the Government in its current operations." I cannot imagine the present Administration saying anything analogous to that.

Also, the Fulton Committee did include two sitting Members of Parliament, and I wonder: we have talked a lot about the inability of the system to grapple with the longer-term issues because it is crowded out by the short-term pressures. The Civil Service Reform Plan may include necessary elements but it is not, itself, sufficient because it does not address the whole picture from a strategic point of view. I am bound to ask: if the Government will not draw up a strategic plan for the Civil Service, how should it be drawn up? Much as I love my Committee and my extremely able staff, I think the task is too great for us in terms of drawing up a plan. We can point out that there is not a plan and that there is not a strategy, but how should Parliament formulate such a strategy?

Professor King: Can I make two suggestions of alternative ways of addressing this? They are easily stated. One is that I am not quite sure why Royal Commissions and their functional equivalents have become so unfashionable. There is a lot to be said for having such bodies asked to go away for a couple of years, possibly, to raise the kinds of issues that we have been talking about in this room with a view to having something sensible to say about them. After all, Northcote-Trevelyan did not do a bad job; Haldane in 1918 did not do a bad job. I do not see what is desperately wrong with that particular model.

Q668 Chair: There were eight Royal Commissions between NorthcoteTrevelyan and the Fulton Committee, and there has been nothing of equivalence ever since.

Professor King: I take your point. There is another, more Parliament-centred possibility. I have been-I do not know about others-rather impressed with what I think of as the Andrew Tyrie Commission, which seems to me to have functioned very effectively and appears to have been pretty influential on the basis of a remit, with a mix of people: some of them Members of Parliament, notably the Chairman of the group, and some people drawn from other walks of life. It is a more Parliament-centred and perhaps more modest Royal Commission-approach. If one did not, for some obscure reason, want to have something like a Royal Commission, one could go down that path.

Lord Norton of Louth: I would reinforce that. Professor King has said exactly what I would have said. I agree with his point about Royal Commissions having gone somewhat out of fashion, partly because of Harold Wilson’s observation. In terms of what they are about and how they go about it, it would certainly be one model. Like Professor King, I have been quite impressed by the Commission on Banking, and I think that does provide another. Either would be the one to go down. I would just draw your attention, by the way, to the Haldane Report. If that had been taken seriously and implemented, you might have got Departmental Select Committees several decades earlier than, in fact, you did.

Professor Flinders: I think the question is whether there is a need for such a safespace review to take place in a sensible atmosphere. I think there can be no question but that there is. The specific model that you use, and the politics around the choice of the model, is an interesting question itself, be that a Royal Commission or a parliamentary Committee. There being a need for a rational look at the blueprint bigger picture is almost beyond question and, strategically, could be sold to a number of different stakeholders as a very positive opportunity to contribute to the future challenges that we will all face, irrespective of whether we are MPs, academics or members of any party. It is about good governance and what it means in the 21st century.

Q669 Chair: Do you think we could propose this without being seen as obstructing the Government’s policies and existing Civil Service Reform Plan?

Lord Norton of Louth: I was going to make the point that one would have to see it as very different from the earlier ones, because they were able to stand back far more because you were dealing with far more of a settled state. You would have to make clear that this would be dealing, if you like, with a moving target, and that the remit would be governance rather than simply the Civil Service, but it would have to incorporate and make sense of what is happening at the moment. This is not in place of but would incorporate what is happening with the Government’s plans for the Civil Service.

Q670 Kelvin Hopkins: Just very briefly, one of you talked about Ministers now being wilful and driving ideas through from the top. Would you agree that one of the reasons why we no longer have Royal Commissions is because they do not like the kind of answers they might come up with? We saw two examples under Blair-long-term care, which made some recommendations that were completely rejected by the Government; and another on reform of the House of Lords. In the terms of reference, they did not include abolition or a unicameral Parliament, and they would not allow that even to be discussed. Since then, we have had committees of inquiry-like Eddington and Adair Turner-which have been tightly controlled by Government Departments. They have to go to Ministers before they are finalised because governments do not want anything too radical or things said that they do not want to hear being recommended.

Lord Norton of Louth: At the end of the day, you are not going to get change unless there is the political will to deliver it. That is the hardest thing in Government, because what we are suggesting is that Government has to review itself and not simply say that it is the Civil Service that needs reform and review. It is Government and, therefore, you need leadership not just to reform the Civil Service but within Government in order to reform Government, and that is going to be the most difficult part. It really does need strength on the part of the political leadership to deliver that.

Professor King: One needs to make the point that it is not, I think, a decisive argument against having such an inquiry and thinking about these things in public that, in the end, the Government of the day may not like what it gets and may reject it. It seems to me it is worth having a go; it is worth trying.

Lord Norton of Louth: I think it is absolutely essential because it is then on the public record, and that is the key thing. You can then put pressure on Government to have the will to deliver on it.

Professor Flinders: The trick will be being open about the fact that there are costs and benefits to any inquiry of this sort, but that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs for the Government of the country as a whole, not for whichever party might form the Government after 2015.

Q671 Chair: If you had a preference, Royal Commission or Parliamentary Commission?

Professor King: Personally, I would be inclined to go for the Royal Commission or something like that, even if it were not called a Royal Commission, provided that Members of Parliament-and I mean Members of this House, primarily, with due respect to Lord Norton-were on that and playing a serious role. I would, however, certainly be content with the Banking Commission approach.

Lord Norton of Louth: I think there are merits in both. The Royal Commission mode, I think, would have that breadth of who would serve on it. I would have thought the parliamentary Commission is probably going to be slightly more efficient in that I suspect it would not take so much time as a Royal Commission.

Q672 Chair: Which would be your preference?

Professor King: Philip Norton has just persuaded me to be more strongly in favour of the Royal Commission. It is highly desirable to think along these lines, but there is not all that much of a rush. The Dutch have a wonderful saying which I much admire: "If you have a hot potato, put it in the fridge." I think there is something to be said for doing that.

Professor Flinders: I would go for a Royal Commission on the clear understanding that it had a fairly limited time scale to deliver.

Chair: You have already been very clear about that at the end. Thank you very much indeed, my Lord, Professor Flinders and Professor King. It has been a really interesting session. I am very grateful to you. If you have any further comments you want to submit in writing on reflection, please do send them in. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 5th September 2013