Select Committee on Public Service Report


The Effect of Recruitment from Outside

  196.    During the 1990s a policy was introduced of filling some Senior Civil Service posts by open competition rather than by promotion from within the Service (see paragraphs 79 and 93 above). Of the 131 executive agency chief executives recruited or in post in October 1996, 69 per cent were recruited by open competition and 37 per cent of the posts were filled by candidates from outside the Civil Service. The present Government shows no inclination to reverse this policy: Dr Clark told the Committee (Q 1855), "I think it is right that on occasions various jobs have been open to open competition and people have come from the outside to perform them. I think they have gingered up and added a new dimension, new blood, into the Civil Service".

  197.    Sir Robin Butler suggested that recruiting from outside could have a positive impact on morale in the Civil Service, saying (Q 2129), "if somebody is appointed to a Permanent Secretary post against outside competition, that gives them more confidence than if it has been a closed shop appointment".

  198.    Professor Hennessy (QQ 1920 to 1924) saw no objection to filling some Senior posts through open competition, observing that the Civil Service was not, after all, a job creation scheme for a certain sort of graduate. Many outsiders had in 1939-40 been brought into the Civil Service for the duration of the war, which had brought a "tremendous improvement and advantages to the lifers in the Civil Service as well as to the nation as a whole". However, while it had been possible to dragoon some of the country's best talent in time of war, current Civil Service salaries were not sufficient to attract from the private sector "the ones you really want". His only serious concern (QQ 1929 and 1930) was that the system of recruitment might not be proof against people being brought into senior posts because they were in sympathy with the views of the Government of the day.

  199.    Mr Keith Burgess of Andersen Consulting, which has done much work for Government departments over the past two decades said (QQ 711 and 716) that during that period only two people had been attracted from the Civil Service to join his organisation and that none of his colleagues had been poached for top Civil Service jobs.

  200.    One result of recruitment from outside was recognised by Dame Gillian Brown (Q 57) who suggested that the sense of dedication to public service probably grew within individuals over time, and that if people worked only for a brief period in the public service that sense might not develop its full potential. Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (Q 39) thought that "it is possible that, as people see the public service as a thing they might do for five or ten years and then move on to something else, it will perhaps weaken the ethos. I hope it will not do so irreparably."

  201.    Sir William Reid said (Q 594) "I think that if you bring in as the head of one of these executive agencies someone who has had no experience of the public service ethos, you run the risk that they may behave in a slightly improper way." He agreed (Q 595) that part of the public service ethos was a duty to the public service of which one was a part, and a duty to the corps, which is not held by those who do not belong to that corps: "I have in mind people who will come in and then go, who do not regard their time in the public service as necessarily public service, but as a step in their career without necessarily having regard to the service they owe to those whom the agency they head is supposed to serve."

  202.    Sir William Reid also expressed some concern (Q 592) that too much change could lead to discontinuity: "so many things change so much of the time that I find it appears to be a bit demoralising and the way in which public business is done is not handed on in the same way as it seemed to me it was done, say, 30 years ago." Dr David Richards of Birmingham University (Q 396) referred to the manner in which in Whitehall information about how Government works "is based on this informal community where information is passed by word of mouth from one generation of officials to the next generation of officials", and added (Q 399) that in the absence of a written constitution, "officials in effect are carrying around the constitution in their own minds".

The Committee's Conclusions

  203.    There is a likelihood that, when outsiders are brought in to top positions, existing officials will individually be disappointed by the effect on their promotion prospects. We have not had evidence that this so far has had a generally harmful effect on either ethos or morale. There may, however, be a risk of such a harmful effect if a disproportionate number of top jobs are filled by external recruits.

Fixed-Term Contracts

  204.    Given the constitutional importance of continuity within the Civil Service, it seems curious that the introduction of fixed-term contracts has attracted little debate. Fixed-term contracts are being used with increasing frequency and it is clearly the case that for this and other reasons, many Civil Servants no longer see the Civil Service as a job for life. Dr Clark spoke of a problem in the Civil Service which arose "because sometimes the workload just peaks and goes away and that has got to be addressed in management terms and cannot always be dealt with by human wastage. The only way forward in a modern society is short-term contracts" (Q 1870).

  205.    Mr Hammond, the Treasury Solicitor, (Q 1173) mentioned security of employment, which of course has an effect on continuity. "We live in an increasingly insecure world and the Civil Service is not immune from that. The Civil Service has reduced in size. That has applied to lawyers -at any rate, in the Senior Civil Service-as it has applied to administrators as well. I do not think security is quite such a powerful factor now as perhaps it was when I joined the Government Legal Service."

The Committee's Conclusions

  206.    The Committee recognises that the modern Civil Service is a profession of people who will not necessarily stay there for the whole of their careers. In a country where officials "carry around the constitution in their own minds" a strong element of continuity is, however, highly desirable in the Civil Service. This continuity may be threatened by over-use of recruitment from outside and the use of fixed term contracts. The Committee therefore considers it to be essential for Government, in pursuing these policies, to look to the future, and to have regard to the impact of them on the morale of Civil Servants, the collective memory of the Senior Civil Service, and the political impartiality of Senior Civil Servants. The Committee agrees with Dr Clark's view (notwithstanding his view that the use of short-term contracts is the only way to deal with an irregular workload) that such short-term contracts should be used to the absolute minimum.

Interchange of Staff

  207.    Sir Christopher Foster and Mr Francis Plowden (Special Report, p 18) wrote of the importance of ensuring that Civil Servants in departments and agencies had wide knowledge of each other and of their different ways of doing things. "Cross-posting between departments and between them and agencies, would already seem to be less common. Unless at least as much cross-posting remains as in the past, there is a serious danger that the Civil Servants in the rumps of the departments, which are left, will come to have a narrower experience too similar to that of the politicians they serve. That is likely to make them both of less use to politicians and less highly regarded. One can already see Civil Servants being drawn into developing news-handling as their primary function and their presentational skills as most likely to earn them Ministerial respect. It is in this area perhaps that the dangers of future politicisation of the Civil Service are greatest."

  208.    Sir Terence Burns, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, (QQ 1367 and 1368) attached much importance to the movement of Senior Civil Servants across departments. Of the top 70 or 80 people in the Treasury, about 20 came from bases in other departments. "We are very anxious to keep a good movement going on in the Senior Civil Service because in the Treasury we benefit enormously from people from other departments who have a different perspective on things. In a central department where basically you have no real contact with the outside world, and all our work is in relation to other bodies, if you have the same group of people who spend all their lives doing that then they start to become quite insular and it is terribly effective to have someone from another department who is used to being on the other side of the fence, so to speak, come in and have to do expenditure control bearing in mind some of the lessons they have of what it was like being on the receiving end and seeing how it is that they set about doing their job. We get a lot of value out of that." Asked whether the delegation of pay and grading to individual departments might inhibit such movements, Sir Terence said "I could see how that might happen, but it has not happened yet. I have never known of a case where one person's grade or the salary that they were on under this system had meant that they could not move between one department and another."

  209.    Mr Michael Scholar, said (Q 1615), "At the moment we have about 200 secondments out and 200 secondments in the Department [of Trade and Industry]. We have people working in the European Commission. We have people in many companies. We have people in other Government Departments. We have people from all those places actually in the Department on secondment. We intend to keep up that level of interchange and increase it if possible".

  210.    In relation to the DSS (where 98 per cent of staff are in the five large agencies run by the Department) Dame Ann Bowtell said (Q 427) that the interchange of staff between the different agencies was regarded as important, and "particularly between the agencies and headquarters, because we very much need the people doing the policy to be informed by experience of the operational end and vice-versa". Ms Ann Chant, Chief Executive of the Child Support Agency, added (Q 539) "Now, the importance of getting operational administration right and of a high calibre has actually in some ways elevated the status of senior managers in agencies and in fact I have two colleagues who have, as it were, come in from elsewhere in the Department specifically to have their careers developed with a spell in the Executive Agency Board which somewhere else would not be able to offer them".

  211.    Mr Hammond (Q 1184) said that increasingly there was a great deal of movement of Civil Service lawyers throughout Whitehall: "it matters much less now which department a lawyer happens to be in because there is so much movement within Whitehall across departmental boundaries that people no longer regard themselves as being lawyers in the Home Office or the DTI or whatever. I think they increasingly regard themselves as being part of the Government Legal Service."

  212.    The Committee notes that the 1994 White Paper, The Civil Service, Continuity and Change stated that reasons for introducing the Senior Civil Service included the need to promote an understanding of the collective interest of Government, in support of collective Cabinet responsibility, by encouraging movement between organisations.

The Committee's Conclusions

  213.    The balance of the evidence which the Committee received suggested that the creation of agencies had not had an adverse impact on the interchange of staff. Opportunities are, if anything, wider than before, as officials now have the chance to gain experience in executive agencies as well as the core departments. The Committee takes the view that such interchange is of vital importance to the overall unity and coherence of the Civil Service. We therefore recommend that interchange of staff within and between departments and agencies is a matter which should not be left to chance, but which should be fostered by the Head of the Civil Service, and made one of the explicit responsibilities of the Minister in charge of the Office of Public Service.

Co-ordination across Structural Boundaries

  214.    Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Special Report, p 256) pointed out that since executive agencies tended to deal with a single issue, each might optimise its own performance at the expense of overall performance in processes which involve more than one agency. A saving for one agency might be an additional cost for another and she had no confidence that such cross-agency, let alone cross-departmental, considerations informed decision-making.

  215.    Sir Peter Baldwin considered (Special Report, p 206) that, notwithstanding the various good intentions behind privatisation of Government functions or their transfer to executive agencies "the price of this has been limited managerial horizons, concentrating the attention of the heads of public agencies upon the performance of their respective agencies rather than that of the parent department or the Government machine as a whole". Sir Peter Kemp admitted that there was a need "to make sure the agency is continuing to develop and deliver the Minister's policy, not as it were the chief executive's own policy ... That is still an area that we need to look at." (Q 1327)

  216.    Professor Hennessy said (Q 1901) that because of the federal system of departments with a collective, rather than a single, executive it was very difficult to work out who really was running the Civil Service.

  217.    Professor Michael Clarke, Head of the School of Public Policy, wrote (Special Report, p 225) that one problem which arose from the fragmented nature of Government was how to develop public policy across the internal boundaries. "It is exacerbated by the multiplicity of agencies and other public organisations which should have an input into the policy-making process. The point is all the more important given the increasing predominance of issues ('wicked' issues) on the agenda which do not seem to be the preserve of any one department or narrow group of bodies."

  218.    On the other hand Dame Ann Bowtell reassured the Committee (Q 419) about co-ordination in the DSS: "It is now one of my main roles to see that the Department which is split up in this way behaves as a corporate whole. I do that through the use of the departmental board on which all chief executives sit, which meets monthly and which considers issues which are common across the Department. ... There are a number of cross-departmental bodies which would be under my supervision-we have a cross-departmental body of finance officers, personnel officers, there is a policy committee which runs across the Department". She explained (Q 421) that "What we have is some common departmental policies which the agencies will then translate into their own environment, and then there are other things where agencies can do their own thing. But we place a lot of store on keeping a coherent Department across the board". Similarly, Mr Turnbull described arrangements in the DETR for maintaining relationships between the core Department, its agencies and its NDPBs (Q 2190) although in the DETR (unlike the DSS), agency chief executives are not members of the management board (Q 2185-2187).

  219.    Mr Robin Mountfield described (Q 1977) how, following recent concentration on the "vertical delegation" of defined tasks to executive agencies and so on, there was now a need to concentrate more on "horizontal co-ordination". He spoke (Q 1978) of the need to overlay the present vertical structure with "a concentration on the awareness of the links between different kinds of activities, for example, between various bits of the social services and health fields, and one can replicate many examples". He added (Q 1979) that there was an increasing use of "task forces drawn together on a rather ad hoc basis to address particular problems which cut across departmental boundaries".

  220.    This sort of approach is encouraging; but co-ordination across boundaries is affected not only by structures, but also by procedures. Sir Christopher Foster and Mr Francis Plowden (Special Report, pp 15 to 16) described certain "non-structural changes" in the way in which the Government conducts its business which they said had led to a decline in the co-ordinating machinery of central Government. The examples they gave included the less frequent use of Ministerial and official Cabinet committees, and the taking of decisions by Ministers without first seeking the advice of their Civil Servants. "Taken together these changes have had a profound effect not only on the conduct of business but also in fragmenting and altering the public ethos, through threatening the coherence and consistency of Ministerial and Civil Service interactions across departments."

  221.    In oral evidence, Sir Christopher said (Q 108) that traditionally the Civil Service used to "make sure that every part of Whitehall, every department which was involved in major decision making or policy making, for example a Bill, had its opportunity to state its case, and assume that its interests had been considered. A high proportion of Bills actually do involve more than one department. Their job was to ensure through this Sherpa-like activity that every issue of this kind had been fully gone into and had been cleared by individual Ministers, so when something came to the Cabinet Committee it was as well-founded and agreed as possible. The fact is the co-ordination does not work terribly well at the present moment. It is often done by Ministers and political advisers, the role of the [No. 10] Policy Unit to some extent usurping that of the Cabinet Office. That does alter the role of the Civil Service greatly. There is a danger, we believe, that as a result the necessity of many of the traditional qualities of the Civil Service is being eroded."

  222.    Drawing attention to factors which do still ensure co-ordination across boundaries, Sir Terence Burns said (Q 1441) that ensuring that the Cabinet system of Government worked as a coherent structure depended on two things: "One is the Cabinet Office machinery at the centre of that and the second is the Treasury working as far as the financial aspect of that is concerned and it brings integrity to the system, it means that people can go out there in their departments prosecuting their own policies as effectively as they can whilst we make sure that it is all done in an envelope that Government can afford."

The Committee's Conclusions

  223.    The Committee considers that if the Civil Service is made up of a large number of small administrative units, then care must be taken to ensure that all the parts work together for the good of the whole. The Permanent Secretaries who gave evidence to the Committee were all able to describe measures in place in their departments designed to ensure intra-departmental co-ordination. The Committee has no reason to believe that the establishment of agencies has had an adverse affect on the co-ordination of policy within departments.

  224.    Co-ordination between departments is another matter. The Committee is concerned by the evidence given by Sir Christopher Foster and Mr Francis Plowden about the decline of Cabinet committees and decreasing consultation of officials under successive Prime Ministers. The question of co-ordinating policy between departments is not a new one, and the Committee can only draw attention to the constitutional importance and inherent good sense attached to the consultation of officials when inter-departmental issues are discussed.

  225.    The Committee notes that it is a specified objective of the Office of Public Service to "maintain the essential coherence of the Civil Service while securing the benefits of devolution and management delegation". The Committee considers that overall monitoring of changes in the Civil Service is of the greatest importance, in order to ensure that there is some consistency of approach in changes made in different parts of the Civil Service, and to ensure that proposed structural changes are based on adequate information and that they reflect an overall, well-planned strategy.

  226.    We recommend that a Civil Service Act should include a requirement for the Government to report annually to Parliament on the recent and proposed structural changes to the Civil Service. We further recommend that whenever such a report is received, it should be referred to a Select Committee set up for the purpose of considering it. We think it desirable that the Government's Report, together with the Committee's Report on it, should then be published together with a recommendation as to whether the Committee's Report is made for information or debate.

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