The Minister and the Official: The Fulcrum of Whitehall Effectiveness Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Civil Service Responsiveness

1.The significance of a trusting, confident relationship between ministers and their senior officials is vital to effective policy design and delivery. This is amply illustrated by, in its absence, ministers publicly criticising their civil servants, and civil servants apparently countering by leaking internal, confidential information to the media. Neither of these can be justified. Where ministers work with their officials well, apportioning blame is replaced by forward-looking lesson learning. This depends upon ministers feeling comfortable with their sense of accountability, which also means their feeling comfortable in their dependence upon on those they “instruct”. This in turn depends upon the quality of personal working relationships, including between ministers and officials, and the degree of trust between them. This underlines how important it is for ministers to create the right atmosphere for these crucial relationships. (Paragraph 22)

2.The experiment with Extended Ministerial Offices has ended after they were not widely used. But it remains vital that ministers have confidence in their private offices. This depends on how permanent secretaries engage their ministers in the appointment of staff and their work. (Paragraph 23)

3.We welcome the Minister’s commitment to investigate ways of establishing a Parliamentary Civil Service Scheme. We recommend and expect proposals and plans for this to be set out in the Government’s response to this report. (Paragraph 27)

4.Continuing reform and renewal of the Civil Service must acknowledge how much depends upon the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants. We are pleased that the significance of the minister-civil servant relationship highlighted by this Report is already acknowledged by the Minister. (Paragraph 33)

5.Newly appointed ministers should be required to hold structured discussions with their permanent secretaries in the days and weeks following appointment to establish a clear understanding of priorities and ways of working. No.10 should ensure that these have taken place. Ideally, coaching and facilitation by a third person of sufficient standing and experience should be made available to facilitate a clear working relationship between a minister and his or her permanent secretary as quickly as possible. The necessary advice, support and resource should be provided by the Cabinet Office, and should not be refused by a department without the Cabinet Secretary being satisfied that there is good reason. Once such facilitated preliminary meetings are part of the culture of Whitehall, and provided the body of facilitators gain a reputation for their effectiveness, few permanent secretaries or ministers would resist the opportunity to accelerate their learning and effectiveness. (Paragraph 34)

Capability and Priorities

6.For effective workforce planning, it is vital that the Civil Service has a comprehensive picture of its stock of skills and expertise. It is more than two years since our predecessor Committee reported on this matter. Progress towards this is welcome but there are still significant gaps in this knowledge. The Government must set out the measures being taken to gather the necessary information on the state of the Whitehall Professions and then to keep this information up to date. This should be set out in its response to this report, with targets and dates for achieving this, and how this will be done, or there can be little confidence that this will ever be achieved. (Paragraph 38)

7.In its report on Accounting for Democracy, our predecessor committee reiterated criticisms of the Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) process made by bodies like the National Audit Office and Institute for Government. The Committee concluded that the SDPs “contain too little detail on either spending or performance”. In spite of this criticism, that report concluded that SDPs should be developed and improved rather than abandoned. It also recommended that, subject to the omissions on grounds of national security or commercial confidentiality, full SDPs should be published. We reiterate these recommendations and expect the government to respond positively (Paragraph 45)

8.If the Civil Service is to make appointments based on experience applicants have gained in other sectors, it is important that this experience is exploited as effectively as possible. Not to do so undermines the logic of external recruitment. (Paragraph 55)

9.The appropriate balance between external recruitment and building capacity internally will vary over time. External recruitment is sometimes necessary to address short term skills gaps in key areas. More generally, a degree of external recruitment can be valuable in bringing different experiences and perspectives to the Civil Service. We note the successful external recruitment to key positions in the Civil Service. Some of those appointees were witnesses in this inquiry. (Paragraph 56)

10.We welcome the commitment made to address the recommendations of the Baxendale Report. But better monitoring of this is needed. At a minimum, external hires should be included as a sub-category in the Autumn 2018 Civil Service People Survey. (Paragraph 57)

11.However, the Civil Service must maintain and renew its capacity to generate its own talent and future leadership, which reflects the experience of the vast majority successful organisations. (Paragraph 58)

12.In respect of how the Pivotal Role Allowance can help retain experience and expertise in particular posts, it is right to ensure that the PRA is only used for genuinely pivotal roles and that it does not become a de facto means to gain a pay increase. However, if one of the main means of addressing the problem of churn amongst key staff is being undermined by the bureaucracy surrounding its application, it suggests that the safeguards are excessive. We note that the revised strategy outlined in the Cabinet Office’s most recent submission to the SSRB sees the PRA continuing only as a transitional measure as a new reward strategy is developed. However, for as long as it remains, it needs to be effective. The Government told us that it “will continue to monitor and review the appropriateness of the PRA process, including the scope for streamlining”. (Paragraph 65)

13.The Government must complete its review of the Pivotal Role Allowance and we look forward to the next steps in this process being set out in the Government’s response to this report. (Paragraph 66)

14.The average time in post for the Senior Civil Service is less than two years. This is shorter than the tenure of many of the ministers they serve, and makes a nonsense of the idea of a permanent Civil Service providing ministers with the subject expertise, long experience and corporate memory they are entitled to expect. The Fulton Committee’s 1968 report on the Civil Service criticised “the cult of the generalist”, but the evidence is that this persists. The system fails to value subject expertise and relevant experience in the field. A departmental permanent secretary in particular should be the pre-eminent policy and delivery expert in their field, but many appointments of permanent secretaries are made from outside the department. (Paragraph 75)

15.Just as the Civil Service as a whole needs to concentrate more on developing its own talent and future leadership, so departments need to do so as well. We expect the government to demonstrate it is giving this aspect of Civil Service effectiveness some fresh thinking in its response to this report. (Paragraph 76)

16.The issue of churn and “the cult of the generalist” has been identified as an issue under successive governments but the problem persists. Complaints about churn predate the present period of pay restraint of the last ten years, suggesting that pay is not the only, or even the major, cause of the problem. The perception amongst civil servants seems to be that the best route to seniority is through rapid movement. Until depth of knowledge or specialism provide a similar prospect of career progression, churn is likely to remain an issue. (Paragraph 77)

17.The Professions have developed unevenly. They are structured differently, have differently degrees of leadership, and varying degrees of integration. Garry Graham of Prospect told us that 72% of its members had little or no engagement with their profession. Given this, we are not convinced that the current Professions are robust or coherent enough to provide the basis for a Civil Service-wide reform of pay (Paragraph 78)

18.We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of the issue of churn and the need to reward the development of specialist skills and deep knowledge. But, to date, only limited initiatives have addressed this. The problem goes to the heart of how the Civil Service thinks about itself and how it plans remain self-sustaining. (Paragraph 79)

19.We are concerned that the system of cross-government Professions is insufficiently developed to provide the basis for the strategy contained in the Cabinet Office’s submission to the SSRB. Before any strategy introduced, we recommend the Cabinet Office undertake a review of the readiness and embeddedness of the Professions to address churn, and how they will also address the need to strengthen experience and expertise relevant to each government department. (Paragraph 80)

Functional Leadership

20.There is a balance to be struck between the potential gains from common processes and practices across government and the need for departments to be able to tailor these to their own needs. However, it should not be viewed as a zero-sum game, with progress on the cross departmental Functions automatically viewed as a diminution of departmental authority. This is not about strategic coordination of policy across departments but about effective cross-departmental administration. The role of Functions should be to assist departments to deliver the Government’s policies more effectively. For their part, departments need to be properly incentivised to work effectively with Functions. (Paragraph 91)

21.The development of cross-government structures does create difficulties for existing accountability mechanisms centred around departments. We understand the Government’s concern that creating accountability structures for Functions risks impinging on departmental pre-eminence. We are also mindful of the need to avoid adding layers of bureaucracy. However, without some form of accountability, we are concerned that there is a risk that Functional priorities diverge from the departments that they are supposed to be supporting. (Paragraph 92)

22.We recommend that the cross departmental Functions develop statements setting out their principles of collaboration with the departments. This should include agreements on sharing of data and the mechanisms by which they agree deliverables with their departments. There should also be a general statement about how a conflict between a cross department Function and a government department should be resolved. These should be agreed by the Civil Service Board, and reflected in the response to this report. (Paragraph 93)

Departmental Boards

23.It is clear that, currently, boards are not regarded as effective in many instances. That several departmental boards did not even meet the minimum threshold of four meetings a year is symptomatic of this. We agree that this is in large part due to the role of the secretary of state as chair: where secretaries of state do not take boards, or their role as chair, seriously, they deliver little value. We do not, however, subscribe to the view that the secretary of state should relinquish the chair. Instead, measures to establish a clearer role and expectations of departmental boards, including of the role of chair, should be introduced. (Paragraph 110)

24.At the minimum, all boards should meet the threshold of four meetings a year. (Paragraph 111)

25.The role of the board and of board members should be included in any induction for ministers new to a department. New ministers should establish with the permanent secretary and the lead non-executive clear goals against which board performance can be evaluated. Secretaries of state should, on a comply-or-explain basis, relinquish the chair for those parts of board meetings involving evaluation of the department’s plans or performance. (Paragraph 112)

26.Non-executives are recruited as a source of expertise and advice. It is right that they should not be involved in the inception of policy in broad terms. It is for the government to decide on policy goals and to be held accountable for them. However, if this is interpreted to preclude non-executives from being used to full value then it is self-defeating. (Paragraph 118)

27.Guidance should be clarified to ensure that non-executives can offer advice to ministers and officials about the overall design of policy where that is likely to impact on its delivery. (Paragraph 119)

28.We acknowledge that the lack of a clearly defined role for non-executives outside their formal role on departmental boards allows them to be used flexibly. However, if non-executives are typically providing most of their value, and spending most of their time, on other areas, clearer acknowledgement of that should be included in the Corporate Governance Code, including a clearer statement of the limits to their activity. (Paragraph 120)

29.A stronger statement of the duty of non-executives to challenge what they see as flawed policy design or planning should be added. (Paragraph 121)

Learning and Development

30.The Civil Service has continued to prioritise learning and development and it has focussed on building its dedicated, in-house provision in this area. However, it is clear that key aspects of professional development of civil servants which used to be provided by the NSG are missing. Nothing has yet emerged to play the “anchoring” role that the NSG fulfilled. There is no single directing mind taking care of learning and development, either for individual civil servants or for the Civil Service as a whole. In spite of the range of different bodies, an overarching, coordinating body is conspicuous by its absence. (Paragraph 135)

31.A body to lead and coordinate Civil Service learning and development activities should be established with its own permanent centre of operations. In addition to this “anchoring” coordination role, we reiterate our predecessor Committee’s recommendation that such a body should “be a place in which Civil Service leaders can reflect and build upon their experiential learning”. In establishing this academy, we recommend that the Cabinet Office consult academics to ensure that this institution provides Civil Service leaders with effective access to conceptual, reflective and experimental learning. It must address the unique challenges faced by public service leaders, which conventional business training cannot”. (Paragraph 136)

32.We set out in this inquiry asking how the Civil Service should become “more mindful of itself”. This inquiry has not provided a clear answer to this question. How an organisation nurtures its future talent and leadership by which the values of an organisation is handed down the generations. We await the outcome of Sir Gerry Grimstone’s Centre for Public Service Leadership review with interest. We will conduct a follow-up inquiry once his taskforce has made some more progress. (Paragraph 137)

Published: 18 June 2018