Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Mr Patrick Diamond, Professor David Richards and Professor Martin Smith Mr Patrick Diamond is a research fellow in Politics at the University of Manchester. He is a former special adviser to the Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office. David Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester and Martin Smith is Professor of Politics at the University of York. (CSR 11)

Is the Civil Service in need of radical reform?

1. From Fulton onwards, the history of Civil Service reform can be characterised as being somewhat janus-faced. Why? Overtime, various governments have adopted a common default setting in their approach to this subject: on the one hand, a tendency to caricature the Whitehall machine as something akin to a “Rolls Royce”; while on the other, deriding its culture and organisational practises for constraining effective policy making, in terms of formulation, implementation, or both. The current Coalition’s Civil Service Reform Plan [June 2012] appears little different. It is not clear whether reform is pitched at Whitehall as a monolithic organisation requiring wholesale change or something targeted more at specific parts of the service. The language invoked throughout proclaims a programme of “radical” reform, resurrecting the “TINA” aphorism of the 1980s that “this time there is no choice” (Francis Maude p.4). Yet the substance of the plan appears to go little beyond that of a series of rather piecemeal, often unrelated proposals.

2. Part of the reason for this ambiguity is an unwillingness to clarify either what the role of the bureaucracy should be in the modern world or a realistic appraisal of its capabilities. On a daily basis, different parts of the civil service engage in a wide variety of often contrasting functions: there is the private office providing day-to-day support to a minister; officials involved in the detail of policy advice and policy making; those involved in policy delivery (which often occurs outside of the civil service); and those responsible for providing services (largely carried out by agencies or private bodies). The point here is that it is difficult to establish the case for reform when there is a lack of an over-arching vision of what the civil service is and does.

3. In the light of this, a key issue running throughout this reform plan stems from a failure to disaggregate between for example, the “top 200” group, the Senior Civil Service [about 1% of civil servants], Whitehall more generally [about 9% of civil servants] and the wider civil service largely composed of operational units and “arms-length” agencies beyond SW1. The main thrust of the plan rarely distinguishes between a senior civil servant and a front-line agency staff, or the various and multiple roles they undertake. Instead, it infers that all civil servants need to develop a combination of professional, technical and specialist skills, suggesting that the rather meaningless adage of “unified but not uniform” still holds sway.

4. Underpinning this issue is the unresolved tension, first enunciated in the 1968 Fulton Report, between “generalist” and “specialist” administrators. For example, the reform plan argues that permanent secretaries should have operational management competencies, but also experience outside the civil service, emphasising the importance of recruiting “outsiders” to senior posts. Yet elsewhere, Oliver Letwin, currently Minister of State at the Cabinet Office in a recent address to the Institute of Government (17 September 2012), praised the “inner-core” of university educated civil service generalists, as a discrete profession at the heart of a well functioning liberal democracy. Letwin argued that the administrative cadre of the civil service should remain largely as it is, built around particular core functions: overseeing due process in policy-making; clarifying and promulgating ministerial decisions; advising ministers on how well particular objectives can be met through specific policies; and finally, safeguarding constitutional propriety and ethical standards. Such a view appears to contradict the view presented at the outset of the reform plan that avers that the whole of the Civil Service should be subject to fundamental reform, due to ineffectual policy-making and weak project management capability.

5. From this perspective one can argue that, as with previous waves of reform, for too long the focus on the civil service has been predominately on its central activities of supporting ministers and making policy. The civil service is very effective at its small p political role of enabling ministers to work the pathways of Whitehall and Westminster. This is why ministers often have a good working relationship with their senior officials in the department. They are there to support ministers and loyalty to the minister is a key principle for civil servants. However, as has often been acknowledged, officials are much less effective at implementing and delivering policy. The existing culture, if one can talk in such generic terms, places little emphasis on developing the knowledge and know how to turn policy into practice. It does however remain a moot point as to whether the inability to focus on delivery is the result of a lack of skills in the civil service, the wrong incentive structures, or unrealistic expectations by ministers.

6. Wholesale reform of the civil service is then very much a live issue, but the point here is that emphasis should be less on what civil servants already do well, managing upwards, and more on what is often overlooked, including within this plan, the ability to effectively manage downwards in delivering policy.

Are the Government’s plans for reform, as outlined in the Civil Service Reform Plan and related documents, likely to lead to beneficial changes?

7. There are evidently points of good sense in the plan, notably a commitment to upgrading training and development, improving information management and introducing a coherent digital strategy for UK government. There is some acknowledgement in the plan that a considerable amount of Whitehall policy-making is presently weak and ineffectual. The proposals to make departmental permanent secretaries more accountable for the quality of policy advice, while introducing a “contestable policy fund” to draw on new sources of policy-making expertise and insight might be viable solutions if located within a coherent overarching framework. Although the latter, if not managed effectively, does of course raise the spectre of the potential for pluralistic stagnation. There are though, a number of areas where the proposals may not lead to beneficial changes and, indeed, could result in negative, unintended consequences.

8. First, there is no overall vision about what the future role of the state should look like. The data published to support the reform plan emphasises the long-term challenge of fiscal sustainability, and the need for significant cuts in departmental expenditure up to 2015–16 to achieve the government’s commitments on deficit reduction. There is also a recognition that the civil service will have to respond to complex social and environmental challenges, in particular an ageing society and climate change. The current government has a number of other strategic ambitions, including an “activist” industrial policy and the promulgation of “the big society” as a means of reviving civic association and social capital in Britain. Yet the plan fails to articulate what sort of role and capacity the government should provide to help meet these challenges. It approvingly notes that civil service employment now constitutes less than 2% of total UK employment, the lowest level since 1945. The reduction in civil service employment since 2010 is greater in two years than that achieved between 1979–90. But it also raises fundamental questions about the long-term capacity and sustainability of the civil service, both in relation to policy-making as well as policy implementation. The recent policy “fiasco” over the West Coast mainline franchise process draws such questions into sharp focus. For example, it highlights wider concerns surrounding the policy-making capability within the Department of Transport (DfT) following a series of departures among senior staff. Similarly, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling (2010), alludes in his recent memoirs to the lack of experience and expertise in the Treasury which compromised the quality of support and advice he received in navigating a pathway through the 2008 financial crisis. This is a process of “slimming-down” which has accelerated across Whitehall since 2010. None of these debates about the role and function of the state are properly aired within the civil service reform plan.

9. Second, the reform plan alights on particular national models without exploring the underlying tensions and ambiguities entailed by exporting reforms from one country to another. Indeed, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has gone on record in announcing that the government is particularly interested in the “New Zealand” model based on a contractual relationship between ministers and departmental chief executives. The Institute for Public Policy Research has since been commissioned to carry out an in-depth survey of the New Zealand reforms, alongside a number of other OECD countries.2 The advantages of the New Zealand system are that senior officials are publicly accountable for performance, seemingly resolving the underlying tension in many “Westminster-based” democracies about whether ministers or civil servants are responsible for operational decisions and delivery. The process is overseen by an independent State Services Commission which appoints, monitors, and assesses departmental heads on behalf of the elected government of the day. There are however, a series of ambiguities that emerge in the UK context. For example, such a model might entrench the artificial distinction between “policy-making” and “implementation”. The policy development process and policy implementation process cannot be neatly separated; there is a constant “feedback loop” between setting overarching objectives, selecting specific policy instruments, and implementing policy on the ground. There is no evidence that the New Zealand model fundamentally resolves this ambiguity. In seeking to clarify ministerial and civil service accountability, there is a risk that policy-making and implementation will be prised even further apart.

10 Third, the plans consider the role of the civil service as an entity in its own right, without considering its wider relationship to public services as a whole. This is a point of fundamental importance: as the wide-ranging literature on “governance” testifies, the modern day civil service does not operate in isolation, delivering policy in a simply ordered, hierarchical, top-down fashion. Instead, policy-making and delivery evolves through a myriad of institutions and actors outside the direct authority of the central state (Bell & Hindmoor, 2009; Bevir & Rhodes, 2006). While we do not concur with more extreme interpretations inferring the “hollowing-out” of the state (Rhodes, 1994), it is clear that policy implementation is undertaken by a wider public service rather than the civil service per se. As such, the relationship between Whitehall and front-line service delivery is complex, mediated by a series of exchange relations and bargaining games where policy goals are constantly redefined and interpreted by actors (Smith, Geddes, Richards & Mathers, 2010). The civil service reform plan acknowledges weaknesses inherent in the current architecture of Whitehall policy-making. However, there is still a tendency to treat policy formulation as a linear process of transmission from central government to local agencies and actors. Yet scores of ministers over the last thirty years have voiced their frustration at pulling what they regard as “rubber levers”, compounded by the fact that their control over institutions beyond the central state is increasingly circumscribed. The reform plan does little to address the challenges of contemporary governance in the UK state.

11. Fourth, despite the obvious imperatives of fiscal consolidation providing a clear window of opportunity for change, more radical options for Whitehall reform appear to be off the agenda. For example, a lack of “joined-up” government and departmentalism has been a perennial concern in Whitehall since the 1940s. There is a case for re-examining departmental boundaries and “silos” to reduce horizontal and vertical fragmentation, potentially reorganising Whitehall round a series of “outcomes” that weaken or even abolish departmental boundaries.

12. Similarly, the civil service could be absorbed within a single, unified public service with a strategic approach to public service delivery and social and economic reform. This would also seek to ensure greater integration and “joining-up” between central and local government. Despite the stark fiscal challenge ahead, the approach in this plan is more akin to grafting reform on to an existing, firmly entrenched model, rather than exploring the potential for genuine transformation in how the state is organised and run.

13. Elsewhere, the plan should be applauded for advocating a shift towards more open policy-making by drawing on more expert and non-expert, outsiders. It recognises the potential constraints on such a venture presented by the existing FOIA settlement, yet at the same time it is not willing to countenance challenging the holy grail of Whitehall’s modus operandi—the disclosure of minister-civil discussions. There is no evidence to suggest that such a move would curtail the willingness of officials to speak truth unto power. Indeed conversely, it might well have the oppose effect, enhancing the quality of officials’ critical engagement in the policy process, knowing the spotlight of public scrutiny can be shone down on it. Here again, one could flag the events of the West Coast Mainline and the short-circuiting that went on [as revealed in the Laidlaw Report], as a case in point.

14. In summary, the reform plan lacks any historical account of why previous reforms have often been less than successful; nor is much consideration given to the inherent tensions in the process of public administration reform. There is a danger that not only will the proposals fail to achieve beneficial change; if the wrong models are chosen to drive the process of reform, negative unintended outcomes may lead to long-term damage to the fabric of the British state.

15. A more radical approach to reform might include:

first setting out what the role of the modern civil service should be in an increasingly complex governance and policy-making arena;

second exploring alternatives to the existing firmly embedded approach to minister-civil service relations. For example, in our view, the problem of accountability in a more fragmented policy arena has never been resolved because of the continued secrecy underpinning the policy process. Ministers and officials cling on to the tenant that policy advice must be confidential. However, a more open process of policy making would mean that officials would have to defend their advice and ministers would have a process that is much more open to rigorous appraisal of the viability of policies. This in turn would go a long way to resolving the accountability issue, potentially leading to policies that are more robustly constructed prior to implementation; and

third, and possibly most crucially, there should be a greater stress on effecting a fundamental cultural change. This could involve a shift if you like in Whitehall’s prevailing operating code that is currently heavily skewed towards rewarding those orientated to working upwards within their departmental setting. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on identifying better incentive structures to reward those engaged in the effective downloading of policy in relation to actual delivery.

What is the best approach for achieving consensus on the future size, shape and functions of the Civil Service?

16. As is consistent with the approach outlined above in this response to the Committee’s inquiry on the civil service reform plan, any proposals to redefine the relationship between civil servants and ministers ought to properly take into account the wider constitutional relationships that structure British government at the centre, including the doctrine of parliamentary and ministerial accountability. There is a persuasive case for a Royal Commission that would examine the constitutional fundamentals of Whitehall and civil service reform, before any decision is taken to adopt a particular model such as the New Zealand system, focused on making senior officials more publicly accountable for performance and delivery. There has to be much greater clarity about why reform is necessary, where reform is most needed within the service, and what outcomes reform is intended to achieve.

References

Bell, S & Hindmoor, A. Rethinking Governance: The centrality of the state in modern society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Bevir, M & Rhodes, R A W. Governance Stories, London: Routledge: 2006.

Rhodes, R A W. “The Hollowing Out of the State: the changing nature of the public service in Britain”, Political Quarterly, Volume 65 (2): pp. 138–51, 1994.

Smith, M J, Geddes, A, Richards, D, & Mathers, H. “Analysing Policy Delivery in the United Kingdom: The case of street crime and anti-social behaviour”, Public Administration, Volume 89 (3), pp. 985–1000, 2011.

November 2012

1 Mr Patrick Diamond is a research fellow in Politics at the University of Manchester. He is a former special adviser to the Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office. David Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester and Martin Smith is Professor of Politics at the University of York.

2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19638256

Prepared 5th September 2013