Reshuffles, corporate memory and policy-making

Summary

Too many reshuffles in government and the civil service can have a detrimental impact on policy-making – leaving them exposed to vested interests. There are also issues for political parties too. Does social media and transparency offer part of a solution?

This post stems from some thoughts by Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government in her post Government reshuffles. Some of you will be aware of my previous thoughts in my posts Reshuffles and Ministerial initiatives and pet projects. This post has some extended thoughts on the points raised by Jill.

The Coalition has been going through an extensive exercise of deciding what the role of the state should be – what it should be doing and what it shouldn’t be. Nick Clegg has been very clear on this, stating that the cuts are also an opportunity to take this on. During my year working for Coalition ministers, one of the features of the whole cuts programme was trying to identify what business needed to continue (because it was politically essential to do so), what business had to continue (because there were legal requirements that said “This had to happen”) and which areas could be wound down and/or stopped altogether.

The scale of the reorganisation and of the cuts means that some of the figures around turnover should not come as a surprise. Ministers and senior civil servants have generally taken the view that unless people’s experience is really business critical, individuals will be allowed to go. There are many examples where some people genuinely asked why certain individuals were allowed (or “persuaded”) to go and/or made compulsorily redundant. Having someone that is ‘business critical’ is not the same as ‘actually, that person’s experience would be really useful’ in the current climate. The latter given the need for budget and headcount reductions where the individual wants to go means that such individuals are likely to be allowed to leave.

This then brings me onto the issue of corporate memory. What do you do when the bedrock of your policy-making unit moves on? Being on the Fast Stream I jumped around from pillar to post over a number of years, finding that as soon as I thought I had got my head around the policy area I was in, it was time to move on. Yet in those posts, it was very clear who were the policy people who had been in the posts for quite some time and were regarded as the ‘sages’ of the division – directorate even. More often than not, such people were very friendly, very competent but also valued the longer-term stability of the role they were in. A rapid ascent up the corporate ladder was not for them. I lose count of the number of meetings I was in where I was thinking “I am so glad I have this person on my side!”

How many of the bedrocks have moved on as a result of the cuts? I don’t know, but I can guess that a number of them have. What does this mean for individual policy areas?

In one sense, it means a very steep learning curve for those who remain behind – having to compensate for the loss of such key staff. Some will cope admirably, others less so. But again, the pace and scale of the cuts mean that trying to plan properly for what the skills needs of the organisation are, is very difficult. Ideally such organisations would carry out a skills audit looking at the skills sets that are needed at the various levels, look at the skills of the staff that they have, try and allocate accordingly and set in motion a decent learning, development and recruitment strategy to try and fill in the gaps – and quickly.

There is also then the issue of the capacity of policy-making units. There are some areas that in the past might have been ‘over-filled’ as far as headcount is concerned – depending in part on what your political priorities are. There are other areas that, as far as I am concerned as ‘under-filled’ – where the size of the policy-area is far greater than the number of people working in that area that the vested interests are able to run rings around the ministers and policy-makers because their resources for that area are so much greater.

On a broader ‘spread of resources’ issue, does the spread of policy-makers reflect both the spending, the desired outcomes and the number of ‘stakeholders’ of those areas? This perhaps comes back down to Clegg’s point about reshaping the role of the state. Are there some areas where the state should be taking a back step, and if so which are they? Are there areas where the state should be intervening more, and if so which are they?

Moving onto the subject of political parties, one of the things I was never clear about during my time in policy teams was the relationship between civil service policy units and party-political policy units. The reason why this concerns me is because of the issue of legitimacy in the minds of the electorate. Who are the political drivers of policy within political parties? In government – whether a coalition or a single party, the appointment of a ministerial post normally signifies that said individual/individuals are the ‘head’ of that policy – taking the responsibilities (especially to Parliament) that goes with it. But in the world of regular reshuffles, things become more blurred. In the early days you are relying on the advice others give to you – whether political advisers or civil servants. It’s a frightening and daunting experience. In the first couple of weeks in one policy post I found myself having to deliver a couple of public speeches to key stakeholders. With ministers, it’s a case of being on telly from day one.

Given the time it then takes for ministers to get up to speed on a policy area, who is driving the policy in the meantime? Is it the party-political machinery that may have spent years working through their policies in opposition? Is it the civil servants taking their cue from what was the previously established policy, carrying on as normal until the new minister says otherwise? Or is it an outside interest such as an industry group or trade association?

The first is an issue because without the opportunity for considered and timely policy-making, party-political machinery runs the risk of being reactive to whatever the media firestorm is of the day. One of the things that struck me about Major’s final years (and that too of Brown) was that neither seemed to be in control of any agenda or greater plan. Their ‘policy leads’ were busy with the day job of being a minister and the weekend job of being constituency MPs which meant that long term strategic policy-making was all the more difficult. While not having a civil service machine behind you, being in opposition gives the breathing space of policy-development outside of the public glare. (Unless or until it becomes clear that the alternative people might be looking for does not materialise). As an aside, I blogged about how Ed Miliband could – and perhaps should have used a similar process to David Cameron on formulating new policies. One thing for Whitehall watchers to think about is what the role should be of party-political policy-making processes vis-a-vis the civil service, when that party is in government.

The role of party-political policy units is also an issue because of the concerns Peter Hain raised in an interview with Total Politics magazine, written up by Amber Elliott. If people are no longer willing to join political parties, it means amongst other things that parties are less able to resource their policy-making units. Weaker party policy-making units and weaker civil service policy-making units I fear are more susceptible to pressure from lobbyists and the firms/groups that they represent – especially if political and state institutions stick to the current models of policy-making. (See my slides 10-13 and 44-46 for my take on the current and possible future models, as well as my write-up of the session on The impact of social media on Whitehall at UKGovCamp 2012).

As far as the civil service machine is concerned, having ministers with a strong sense of the outcomes that they want to achieve, and at least some sense of how they should be achieved, is always a bonus. (Understanding how large organisations function…now we’re wishing here!)

On the final point, well-resourced vested interests know which buttons to push. They can bring to bear just as strong a policy and research team to face off the civil service policy unit. They may well have good connections and friendships with big hitters in the political world – such as MPs (in particular former ministers), peers, editors of key trade publications, political and special advisers, lobbyists, party-political activists and the like.   Hence why for me it is important that both the civil service and political parties have strong-enough policy units to withstand the pressure that is inevitably brought to bear from such vested interests. In particular, that means ensuring that the representations made by such interests are properly scrutinised.

Social media provides an opportunity for such scrutiny – and comes back to some of the issues raised at the “Crowd-sourcing policy” event at the Institute for Government. (Which I attended and also met Jill and other IoG people at – got to be transparent about these things!) I also come back to the points raised in the paragraphs above and the links to how social media can impact policy-making and make it more transparent.

One of the things that I’d like to see MPs and Parliament make public – and publicise, is all of the representations that they get from key lobbying groups and large organisations – irrespective of whether they are profit-making, charitable, not-for-profit or trade union groups. Amongst other things it will help people understand who has pressurised which MPs and ministers and make more clear which groups have been more successful at lobbying and why.

That’s not to suggest lobbying is inherently bad. Me sending a tweet to my local MP on an issue is a form of lobbying. Constituents being able to lobby their local MP is one of the cornerstones of our political system. Organisations being able to lobby lots of MPs should be differentiated from this. It is this sort of lobbying that needs to be much more transparent than it currently is. This sort of transparency may also help those civil service policy teams properly scrutinise the representations that they and their ministers receive on the policies that they are implementing.

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