Select Committee on Public Service Report



  77.    The work of the Civil Service College, which had got off to such a promising start in 1970, had received criticism during the 1970s. In 1976 the Edinburgh college was closed for reasons of economy. At about the same time, the prestigious courses for administration trainees, originally developed into two periods of 15 weeks, were redesigned into shorter modules and reduced in length to a total of about 20 weeks. The post of Principal of the College was downgraded from Deputy Secretary to Under Secretary. The College became a Next-Steps Agency in 1989; in 1992-93 there were 233 staff, and total running costs of £16.1 million. Student days at the college reached 93,000, and a significant consultancy business had been developed. By 1995 student days at the College were approaching 100,000; the College's total income was over £18m; the College was attracting nearly 1,000 students a year from the private sector; and its consultancy business was involving it with projects in Ukraine, Columbia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic and South Africa. It was also beginning to offer a significant number of courses away from its own premises, both in United Kingdom Government departments and overseas, including Hungary and South Africa. Since 1995 it has participated, as part of a consortium, in offering a Public Sector MBA degree. From 1995-96 the College has been required to cover its costs in full by revenue from its operations.


  78.    In 1993 the Government published a Code of Practice on Open Government. For the Civil Service, this represented the climax of a trend towards more open Government which had been steadily progressing for many years. In relation to the last thirty years, the most significant of the events which marked this trend were these:

The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information was published in draft in 1993 as part of a White Paper on Open Government. The themes of open Government are the rights of members of the public to hold the Government fully accountable for its actions; to assess those actions; and to have access to information about them held by public organisations. The main thrust of the 1993 White Paper and accompanying code was to ensure that within the public service, the general rule is that information is given unless there is a good reason not to give it. This represented something of a culture change in a service which, thirty years previously, published much less information about the work it did.


  79.    Open Competition: Before the 1990s, most senior appointments were made from within the Civil Service by means of internal promotion. In recent years, more vacancies to posts within the Senior Civil Service have been advertised publicly and filled by open competition.

  80.    Prior Options: Another trend in the 1990s has been the development of the technique of "prior options" testing. Prior options tests are intended to ensure that the Government provides as public services only those functions which are both necessary and best carried out in the public sector. The tests are based on the premise that competition is the best way of ensuring value for money. The system works by requiring managers to consider an activity in detail at regular intervals, and to ask the following questions:

Does this activity need to be performed at all? (If not, it should cease.)

If the Government does wish to retain responsibility for a service, should competition for its provision be introduced? Or should the activity be carried out by a Next Steps Agency?

Could this activity be suitable for privatisation? (If so, take appropriate steps.)

  81.    Agencies are reviewed not less frequently that every four years. All agency reviews include a rigorous test of prior options. Ministers also use prior options to consider the potential for merging organisations or transferring work between them. A recommendation that a particular agency should retain its agency status must be supported by a statement of the benefits to be gained.

  82.    Market Testing: Market testing is the name given to the procedure whereby an activity performed in-house by a part of the public service is subjected to competition. Market testing may be compared with "make or buy" decisions in the private sector. The intention is to ensure that any given service is delivered in the way that gives best value for money. The Efficiency Unit is responsible for oversight of the Government's market testing policy and agreeing strategic market testing targets for departments and agencies.

  83.    Fundamental Expenditure Review: The overall intention of a Fundamental Expenditure Review is to enable a department to manage its activities within the tight running costs laid down by Ministers. The first Fundamental Expenditure Review was undertaken by the Treasury itself (the Department which came up with the procedure). It consisted of a four person review team which spent about five months analysing the activities and structure of the Treasury, and then produced a report which contained a "mission statement" of the Treasury's aims and objectives, and proposed the structure most likely to allow the Treasury to achieve those objectives. The result of that particular review was considerable staff reductions and savings in the running of the department. Since then, all the major departments of Government have completed a Fundamental Expenditure Review.

  84.    Recruitment: One of the main concerns of the 1990s in relation to recruitment was to try to eradicate any possible bias (or prejudice) based on gender or ethnic origin. Historically, women and applicants from ethnic minorities have been under-represented in the fast stream. In an effort to reduce this bias, a new "sift" stage has been introduced into the fast-stream recruitment process, whereby applicants' biodata are collected and analysed.

  85.    Judicial Review: Increasingly, throughout the 1990s, judicial review has been used to challenge administrative decisions in the United Kingdom. In 1974 there were 160 applications in England for leave to seek judicial review; in 1987 there were 1529, and in 1993 there were 2,886. In 1987 the Treasury Solicitor's Department produced an excellent training booklet on this for Civil Servants, called The Judge over your Shoulder. This has sensitised officials to the significance of judicial review in their daily work.


  86.    Throughout the 1990s, more and more functions have been transferred from core departments to agencies, and, in some cases, from agencies to the private sector. By October 1996, 354,327 Home Civil Servants (72% of the total) were working in agencies and other departments operating on Next Steps lines. At that time there were 125 agencies. The largest agency was the Social Security Benefits Agency (over 71,000 staff) and the smallest was Wilton Park (30 staff)-an agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office operating as a conference centre. Thirty-two further functions (carried out by 30,000 Civil Servants) had been announced by Ministers to be agency candidates. Other areas were still under consideration.

  87.    As a result of Prior Options Reviews, by October 1996 the following agencies were amongst those which had been privatised: the National Engineering Laboratory; the Transport Research Laboratory; the Laboratory of the Government Chemist; the Natural Resources Institute; Chessington Computer Centre; the Occupational Health and Safety Agency; Recruitment and Assessment Services Agency; and HMSO. In each case, the staff were transferred (sometimes with, sometimes without, a viable alternative of remaining within the Civil Service). Using the 1993 Next Steps Review as a guide, it is estimated that these agencies together employed nearly 6,000 Civil Servants.

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