Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP (CSR 27)

1. There’s a natural tension between transient politicians, and permanent officials, in any government system.

Good governance requires a system which can accommodate a swift change of the party in power (sometimes accompanied by a 180 degree turn in the direction of policy), and that there should be certainty, stability, and consistency in the way in which, at any one time, the public administration serves its citizenry. There’s a natural tension between these two objectives and between the elected politicians running the government, and the officials who provide the administration of government. This tension is both a functional one, and a cultural one. Democratic politics both attracts and needs individuals who are risk-takers, with strong, partisan views, and relatively short-term horizons. Public administration attracts and needs individuals who are instinctively more compliant, less partisan, with longer term horizons.

These tensions will be more acute when money is tight, and especially when one of the policies pursued by the governing politicians is to reduce the size and the rewards of the public administration itself.

2. There’s a natural tension between the centre of government, and departments.

These tensions are inherent in any large organisation. At best, pressure from the centre on a Department and its Secretary of State can lead to better performance and outcomes all round; but such pressure can also lead to mutual frustration and recrimination, with the centre believing that Departments are complacent and wilful, and the Departments that they are the subject of hare-brained schemes which cannot work, and waste time and money. This is compounded by the fact that individual Departmental Ministers are required to act within the law attached to their Departmental responsibilities, and required by Parliament to stay within particular remits for spending money. These are constraints which in our system have no parallel at the centre of Government, leading to an inevitable degree of “separateness” for Departments. Almost all legal duties on central government are imposed on “the Secretary of State”. The office of Prime Minister is scarcely mentioned in any statutes. The fact that every Government department requires a team of lawyers, whilst there is not even a single Counsel to the Prime Minister reinforces this point.

3. There is no perfect formula for resolving these tensions.. All governmental systems wrestle with the question of where precisely to have the interface between the political, and the bureaucratic. An American-style system with hundreds of political appointees could well create many more problems than it would solve. There is however a strong case for strengthened policy and delivery units at the centre of each department, staffed by mixed teams of career officials, contracted appointees and special advisers. but great care would need to be taken as to how this central cabinet interacted with the permanent administration of the department.

Strong cabinets are, for example a key (and necessary) feature of the organisation of the EU Commission. But those with experience of the system tell me that a consequence is that the permanent officials (in the Directorates) may feel “disempowered”, may be less responsive in practice to change, or may seek to follow their own “departmental” policy separate from that of their political masters. Wherever the line is drawn between the “political” class and the permanent class, there will be tension. The boundaries between the two will always need careful management, which can only be effective with mutual understanding and respect.

3. It’s weak Ministers who blame their officials.

The system is designed to deliver for a Secretary of State who knows his or her mind, how to run a big organisation, and who sets out clearly what is the policy, and ensures that progress is properly monitored.

4. More must be done to ensure that Ministers have the skill-sets to lead Large complex Government departments.

The skills needed to secure appointment as a Minister are political skills. It is accidental whether the individual then has the rather different skills needed in office, of both leadership and management. It is striking how in successive governments of any political party, there will be senior Ministers who have no idea how to build and sustain a team. The work of the Institute of Government for better induction of Ministers, and coaching whilst in post should be encouraged.

5. The civil Service in particular, public pdministration more widely, should embrace and celebrate party politics, not treat its practice as something rather unseemly. This sows unnecessary distrust between Ministers and senior officials.

Our system has long required that the civil service should serve successive governments fairly and impartially—and I want that to continue. However over the past couple of decades I have detected the growth of a view that there’s something slightly unseemly, rather “below the salt” in the practice of party politics, and there is a class of decision on which the political input should be as neutered as possible. The political parties are themselves in part (but only in part) responsible for this. Faced by large government majorities, first the Labour opposition, and then the Conservative opposition, vocally complained about alleged political bias in public appointments—with one result that (under Labour) new and complex rules for public appointments were developed.

These developments have particularly affected Ministerial discretion in respect of appointments of Permanent Secretaries, and of the Boards of NDPBs. No self-respecting senior official would be willing to make an appointment where they were presented with a short-list of one on a “take it or leave it” basis. The claim that this is a necessary component of any appointment in which candidates from outside the civil service are sought is disingenuous. I dispute the argument that there should be different rules for such competitions.

In each of the three Secretary of State positions I held I made appointments of Permanent Secretaries from short-lists of at least three as I did of NDPB posts, and of key positions like the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (until 2000 the Home Secretary was Police Authority for London), and of Chief Inspectors of Prisons. As Foreign Secretary I was in addition responsible for recommending (to No 10 and the Palace) the appointments of a large number of senior Ambassadors. I can recall no criticism of the way I carried out these duties, nor has there been of any of my successors as Foreign Secretary. Yet I had difficulty as Justice Secretary in circumnavigating the restrictions on my choice of individuals to run key NDPBs, even though I was (rightly) being held accountable for the (patchy) performance of these bodies.

The straitjacket imposed on Ministerial discretion by these changes is misguided and self-defeating. If Ministers are responsible for appointments they must have a proper discretion over appointments, though I accept of course that this must include ensuring that the standards of candidates, and the filtering out of “cronies”, is secured, as now, by having the sifting and short-listing of candidates conducted by

officials against criteria (as to job description and personal qualities) agreed with Ministers; and not allowing Ministers to put pressure on the selection panel to include people who do not meet those criteria.. It is also important for Minsters to bear in mind that they will not be in post forever, and their appointments need to be able to survive beyond them.

6. The unnecessary “churn” of good officials is a great source of frustration by Ministers, undermines confidence, and leads to sub-optimal performance by Departments.

It is a timeless complaint of Ministers of all parties that, as one put it a recent seminar, “career development appears to trump government priorities”. Especially given the relatively short time scales to which Ministers have to work, it can be very disruptive if a Minister has built up good relations with some key officials, only to find that they are being moved on to suit the convenience of the department. On the other side, there may be officials working in an area which has suddenly become high profile and for which their talents are unsuited. Permanent Secretaries should as a matter of routine discuss key moves of staff with the Secretary of State before, not after, decisions have been taken.

7. Ministerial responsibility is fundamental to our system of government. That sits alongside the parallel responsibilities of Permanent Secretaries for financial probity and management, as Department Accounting Officers. But responsibility for the management of large-scale projects (especially IT programmes) seems to fall between two stools; the churn of Ministers and of senior officials undermines effective delivery and accountability.

March 2013

Prepared 5th September 2013