The Civil Service vs the Public Accounts Committee

Summary

Should more civil servants be expected to appear in front of Parliamentary select committees? I think so.

“Humpo vs Hodge”? Jackie Ashley of The Guardian wrote a column piece on the growing spat between very senior civil servants and the Public Accounts Committee. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government introduces the concept of the Hodge Doctrine here. You’d have thought that as a former civil servant, I’d be on the side of G’OD ((Au)Gus(tine) now Lord O’Donnell – former Cabinet Secretary). During my civil serf days, I rated O’Donnell quite highly. I saw him speak (and threw questions at him) on a number of occasions. There was one surreal day at work where the Prime Minister (DaveCam) came to visit where I threw a question at him, later to find myself at a civil service gathering the same day to pose the same question to O’Donnell. Yet on some key issues on things like Freedom of Information, and on this case around accountability (which I’ve blogged about here) I disagree with him.

In my blogpost In defence of the civil service I argued that senior civil servants – in particular those on six-figure salaries, should have a much higher public profile. This doesn’t mean they should get a daily kicking in the press, but for me it does mean making more regular appearances both in Parliament (to be scrutinised by MPs and peers) and at press conferences held by ministers. I understand why O’Donnell and others have come out against Margaret Hodge, citing the principle of civil servants being accountable to ministers and ministers to Parliament. The problem is that ministers and top civil servants can only have a limited grasp of the real details that perhaps some of the MPs are trying to tease out. That’s not a criticism of ministers and senior civil servants, that’s the reality of running a large organisation. Part of the art of running a large organisation is knowing when to delegate, and ensuring clear systems and processes for escalation are in place for when things (inevitably) go wrong.

The way the system pre-Hodge chairing the Public Accounts Committee (and before then under Edward Leigh’s leadership) was that policy was decided by politicians, and delivery would be the responsibility of civil servants, accountable to ministers for the delivery, and directly to Parliament for value for money. Hence why permanent secretaries are also known as “accounting officers” – for which they are scrutinised annually by the Public Accounts Committee. The problem is where to draw the line between policy and delivery.  There is also the issue of ‘contracting out’ of public services too. Political/democratic accountability is replaced by a ‘contractual’ accountability between the department of state and the third party (such as a private sector firm) delivering the contract.

Dame Helen Ghosh’s response to Hodge’s “summons” (in Jill Rutter’s article) includes the fair point of saying that Parliament and the Cabinet Secretary need to formalise agreements as who can be summoned, for what and why. It may make for difficult reading for more than a few retired civil service grandees – the prospect of being hauled back into the bear pit of a PAC hearing long after you thought you’d retired, to be scrutinised for decisions you may have taken ages ago. That being the case, it’s also got to be clear what sort of support – in terms of civil service time – they can expect to receive for preparation and briefing. After all, the documents will still be held (or at least should be) by the department of state concerned.

“How low can you go?” is perhaps another bone of contention. Just how far down the hierarchy of civil service grades should select committees be expected or allowed to go down? In policy areas I’ve worked on in the past, I recall that it’s generally directors, directors general and permanent secretaries that appear before select committees, with deputy directors (the first rung of senior-civil-serviceville) appearing very occasionally. I’d be nervous at the prospect of civil servants outside the senior civil service appearing regularly before select committees. In my experience, it’s the deputy directors who carry the greater influence. They are close enough to the ground to have an idea of what’s going on while having eyes on the horizon to see what’s ahead, and over a wider field of vision.

There is also the issue of who makes which decisions. Any agreement that Parliament and the Cabinet Secretary come to (if any), I think needs to make clear that it is decisions that are being scrutinised. In policy-world, all but the most basic of ministerial correspondence has to be cleared by a senior civil servant before it goes anywhere near ministers. Thus it is senior civil servants that could – and I argue should be more open to greater levels of scrutiny.

Again, that’s not to say it should be open season on the senior civil service. It is important to have a clear framework – if anything so as not to let ministers off the hook and allowing them to blame civil servants for what was flawed policy in the first place. It’s the decisions that need scrutinising. For me, this means making it clear that scrutiny of civil servants should be targeted at the appropriate level of where the significant decisions were made. Amongst other things this would dissuade MPs from going on ‘fishing’ expeditions, hauling in every one under the sun in the hope of finding an inconsistency.

To conclude, yes there should be greater levels of scrutiny and transparency, but a clear framework needs to be in place to manage both the expectations of all parties concerned as well as to safeguard civil servants from what might be described as more ‘speculative’ attacks.

 

 

 

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One Response to The Civil Service vs the Public Accounts Committee

  1. An area where Permanent Secretaries and other officials have almost complete independence is HR and personnel management. This includes a topic that has been somewhat in the news recently, namely performance-related pay and bonuses.

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