Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr John Parkinson (CSR 23)

Thank you for the opportunity to present written responses to your call for evidence on the Future of the Civil Service. I wish to comment on a selection of the questions in your Issues and Questions paper, but first would like to make three general points.

The “Public Sector” is Public Action, not an org chart

Commentators frequently use the terms “public sector” and “private sector” as a way of categorising organisations. Perhaps in the days of Northcote-Trevelyan that was relatively clear, but over the last forty years governments have deliberately blurred the distinction such that public services are frequently designed, delivered and controlled by almost purely private organisations, while many public organisations frequently provide what are to all intents and purposes private goods. As a result, it is becoming increasingly futile trying to decide whether organisation X lies we tie ourselves in useless knots worrying about whether this or that organisation is public or private. What is useful is to think about “public” in three ways:

1.something is public if access to it cannot (or should not) be restricted or parcelled up and individually owned, like clean air;

2.something is public if it is provided out of collective resources: this might include anything that is paid for out of taxation, including the products of tax-funded research; and

3.something is public if it has common impacts, like the built environment.

The important implication of this is that we potentially make a big mistake focusing solely on organisational structures and ignoring what it is that those organisations do.

Public Scrutiny is a Right, and Presents Unique Challenges

In a democracy, we expect that if something uses our money or impacts on our lives, then we all ought to have a say, either directly or via our elected representatives. Whether a service is provided by the government itself or a privately-owned organisation is irrelevant—if it affects us all, we all should have a say.

There are two implications of this:

Organisations that provide public services—from welfare to policy advice—face accountability pressures that simply do not apply to organisations that sell private goods and services for sale.

Private organisations who provide public services should face the same scrutiny as public ones, and not be permitted to hide behind “commercial confidentiality”, for example.

In other words, the idea that the direction of traffic of skills and ideas should all be from the private sector to the public sector is simply nonsense. The requirements of public service overlap with those of private service, but have aspects that are qualitatively and quantitatively different.

This should be obvious to anyone who has spent significant amounts of time in both publicly and privately owned organisations: large, powerful, bureaucratic, unresponsive, slow-to-change, organisations can be found on both sides of the divide.

It is within that broader context that the following outline responses are offered to the Committee’s questions. There is a great deal more that could be said on these points, and there are implications for other questions that I have not had space to explore here, but I would be delighted to discuss with the committee in more detail should the opportunity arise.

2. Does the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan reflect the right approach to the Civil Service?

No. The plan is primarily a cost-cutting exercise, as stressed in “The Need for Change” (p.7). Costs are not likely to go down; they are likely to go up, simply because of the loss of economies of scale with the multiplication of organisations providing competing advice, and the associated increase in staff required to manage contracts, track performance, and so on. While the core civil service as an organisation might shrink, the total number of people working on public services (and thus paid for by the taxpayer) will increase. By focusing on the public sector as an organisation, the government has lost sight of the public sector as a set of tasks and functions, all of which needs to be paid for.

5. If policy-making is to be opened up to external organisations, what is the distinctive role of the Civil Service in the modern world?

First, policy making is not the exclusive role of the Civil Service. Policy is made in highly complex ways inside political parties, networks of interested parties in public and private organisations. The civil service has a role in policy making, but it has many other roles too in policy analysis, performance management, coordination, communication and so on.

Second, only some of these functions are likely to be profitable and free enough from risk to make outside organisations think it worth getting involved. This is why many private think tanks have refused to get involved so far.

The Civil Service will therefore continue to play an important role because it is the only organisation that has (a) the capacity and (b) the freedom from certain financial pressures to handle certain kinds of policy advice, facilitation, implementation and monitoring.

There are, in addition, questions of legitimacy. The public is often hostile to the view that private organisations should use public money and provide public services because they are required to make a profit on that use.

If there is one set of functions that the civil service has historically been poor at, it is performance management and evaluation. However, again, the standard metrics employed in the private sector (customer satisfaction, sales, turnover, EBIT and so on) are often not applicable to public goods and services; and businesses themselves find it hard to measure the “intangibles”, and thus often fail to do so. Indeed, the evaluation challenges are enormous, because of the huge number of influences on policy outcomes, and the costs of tracking them, such that it can be more expensive to evaluate a programme than to deliver it. So there are good reasons why the public sector seems to lag behind on performance management. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement—the repeated tendency to award contracts to organisations that have failed to reach their objectives on other contracts is a striking one. But the assumption that this is fixable by private sector methods both (a) misses the nature of the problem and (b) gives too much credit to the private sector.

9. Does the long-term future of the Civil Service require more comprehensive and deeper consideration and, if so, how should this be done?

Yes. Clearly the framing of the Plan is about cost savings, when many more considerations are relevant. Clearly it takes an “org chart” view, when public services and public goods are about actions not organisations, and have so for more than 40 years. I can elaborate on alternative methods for deeper consideration if invited to give evidence before the committee.

Many thanks again for the opportunity to present these thoughts.

January 2012

Prepared 5th September 2013