Some thoughts following the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s evidence session with three Commons Select Committee chairpersons.
It’s an hour-and-a-half long session, but Whitehall and civil service watchers should have a listen to the evidence session – even if it is the first few minutes.
It makes for interesting if somewhat damning listening if you are a civil servant – in particular a senior civil servant. One of the things that strikes me from the evidence is how the conventions have remained static while public administration has evolved – and the former does not seem to have kept up. What was particularly interesting was the observation that the public sector is now significantly more fragmented today than in years gone by. The creation of executive agencies, non-departmental public bodies and the contracting out of various functions to the private and voluntary sector has blurred the lines of ministerial accountability. Hodge compared the time when the principles were established, the Home Office had 28 civil servants. Today, the combined Home Office and Ministry of Justice has 34,000. Thus saying the idea that ministers can be accountable today in the same way for 28 civil servants as to 34,000 is nonsense. Hence why changes are needed.
The challenge for Parliament therefore is to acknowledge the current state of play around accountability for the taxpayers’ pound, and adjust its systems of accountability accordingly. Because at the moment something isn’t working.
What was interesting about Margaret Hodge’s comments was that she was scathing about two projects commissioned by the last Labour Government – in which she served in the early years. The first was on the aircraft carriers, the second was on the fire control project. Her take on both was that civil servants should have stepped in and asked for ministerial directions on value-for-money grounds.
What is a ministerial direction?
For those who don’t know what a ministerial direction is, it is the civil service’s big red button. It is where civil servants object to a decision a minister has made on the grounds of ‘value for money for the tax payer.’ The Permanent Secretary is the accounting officer for the department, and has to account directly to Parliament for how the money allocated to it has been spent. This is in the form of scrutiny from the National Audit Office and public hearings in front of the Public Accounts Committee (currently chaired by Margaret Hodge) annually.
Sometimes, ministers decide to spend money on a project or policy that, when examined in detail civil servants think is a really bad idea. Given that permanent secretaries have to account for spending within the department they head, it is in their interests to call out ministers on spending that has ‘serious value for money issues.’ Sometimes policies and programmes are amended to reflect concerns. Sometimes they are dropped. Sometimes ministers are insistent that such things go ahead. In which case civil servants can say “OK, but on your head be it” – effectively absolving themselves of responsibility of value-for-money issues with the policy. An example of what such a letter looks like is this one – the then Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government (Peter Housden) writing to then Labour Secretary of State John Denham.
As you can see from the above-letter, seeking a written direction involves flagging up the issue in Parliament. In this case it led to an Opposition Day Debate – footage here and a transcript here. Whether such directions would have stopped things from going ahead is a different matter. In the case above, Labour whipped their members into line and the motion (calling on the Government to drop its proposals) fell. That said, as Labour lost the general election a couple of months later, the new Coalition ministers quickly reversed the policy of their predecessors. But the case remains on the need for a stronger more independent Parliament in situations such as this – whether amending controversial proposals on which directions have been issued, or blocking them outright.
But what about accountability of civil servants?
I’ve blogged about this before – with some initial ideas. I’ve also mentioned things like the heads of executive agencies and of those organisations delivering high value public contracts having a much higher public profile than they currently do. The value of the contracts, size of profits and size of remuneration in the latter certainly justifies this.
One of the most useful recent developments in the civil service is the bringing in of non-executive directors for departmental boards. The most effective ones I found were the ones who took a genuine interest in the staff that worked in the department and engaged with them. Amongst other things this was a useful ‘intelligence gathering exercise’ – knowing that any issues that were of particular concern were more than likely to be raised by someone.
One interesting development of note from the Lords Constitutional Committee Hearing (from 10:23:00 ono) was Sir Alan Beith MP (Chair of the Justice Committee) saying that his committee secured the agreement of the Permanent Secretary to do independent ‘floor walks’ of the department, talking to whoever they wanted. His initial feedback was very positive. Does anyone know of any other select committees that do this? What do those of you with experience of working in the civil service think of this?
Who is the decision-maker?
This is what Margaret Hodge is trying to get to in terms of principle. Who is the individual responsible for taking the decision on how the taxpayer pound should be spent? Her premise is that accountability is at the core of improving value for money – and at the moment, accountability is a bit of a blur. Ministers in particular she says are less likely to resign or accept accountability for things that they don’t believe they had much control or influence over. She raised the example of Brodie Clark’s resignation following his disagreement with Home Secretary Teresa May.
Contractual vs democratic accountability
I blogged about this here. This is a problem that Parliament is going to have to wrestle with. This also encompasses the incentives for firms and the nature of contracts signed between the public sector and outside providers. To what extent will those contracts be made open and subject to scrutiny bearing in mind commercial confidence issues? There is a tension there. Are private providers also prepared for greater and more regular political scrutiny of their activities? For it’s not just their shareholders that public service providers should be accountable to.
The right skills
Bernard Jenkin was scathing in his assessment of what skills the civil service was lacking – IT, procurement, programme and project management. To be fair, the civil service has been trying to upskill on procurement and project management, but the size of the institution means it’s like turning around an oil tanker – it’ll take time. On IT, the Government Digital Service is making leaps and bounds in a manner I could not have predicted prior to 2010. For me this was reflected in the manner in which the Social Media Guidance was put together – one where Emer Coleman (Deputy Director for Digital Engagement at Cabinet Office/GDS) initiated a very open process on what should and should not be included in it. I blogged about it early on and she and others were prepared to have an open and transparent conversation on the pages of my blog – on top of further outreach activities such as the TeaCamp workshop (which had a massive turnout for that session). Within the GDS there are a number of very highly skilled people from across the various sectors (public, private, voluntary) who have been able to reach out to their networks to drive a given policy, championed by a minster. Being based in Cabinet Office with an engaged ministerial champion is a massive boost – but is by no means a guarantee of success. It’s just as much getting the right people with the right skills, passion and aptitude for the tasks in hand.
One of the things that remains a concern is turnover – something that is understandably high given the huge restructuring and job cuts going on in the civil service. I blogged about the negative impact of too high a turnover and its impact on policy making earlier. This is something that has also been picked up in the mainstream press – The Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network citing a blogpost by Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for the looming Civil Service Reform White Paper. It’s due out soon. Will there be proposed changes to how the civil service is held accountable?