Trouble at the top for the Department for Transport


The reported quotations from one of the suspended staff bode ill for a very important department of state. 

I don’t know how many of you have seen the article on the BBC’s website, but it certainly raised my eyebrows. Perhaps I should have known better than taking a civil service press release at face value? The idea that there should be a public disagreement between a suspended civil servant and a department of state over something as serious and as sensitive as this astonishes me – irrespective of who is to blame for such a breakdown.

It is serious because of the amount of time, money and resources the debacle around franchising is going to cost. It is sensitive because three people have been suspended, with depressing speculation that more are due to follow. This is about people’s careers and livelihoods, and I can’t imagine any of us would want potential disciplinary action played out in full view of the press and a travelling public wanting to know who was responsible.

I cannot recall a previous occasion where a serving civil servant that has been suspended has spoken directly to the media. One of the reasons I strongly recommend civil servants join a trade union is that in the rare instance that you are in the middle of a media firestorm, you have a trade union – with fully trained legal advisers and press officers – who can deal with media queries that ensue. When I was in the civil service, I tipped off Richard Simcox, the press officer of the PCS Union (of which I was a member at the time) when I unleashed Puffles into the world. Had something exploded I would have directed all media attention towards him. (I don’t know if he knew this at the time, but that was my intention. Fortunately nothing did happen!)

The PCS Union has responded in robust terms to ministers trying to blame civil servants. I can see why too. The simple question for me is this:

Does the civil service have both the quantity and quality of people and skills within departments to face huge corporates when it comes to commissioning?

Quantity of people? No

Quality of people? Yes

The right skills mix? No

I spent one of the hardest years of my life in a commercially sensitive area of government policy – one that scars me to this day. (I’m still glad I did it though because it taught me lots of things in a very short space of time).

In a nutshell, the huge corporates have a far greater pool of expertise and resources to call upon than their civil service counterparts. The size of the teams the corporates would have had putting together the bids for the tenders would have far outweighed and outnumbered anything the civil service could put together. That’s not to say the civil servants were not talented. Chances are it was a simple case of being asked to do far too much with too little. As a result, a corner or three could have been missed and here is where we are.

If you want commercial commissioning to work, you must resource your commissioning bodies.

Otherwise you’ll get screwed.

Private sector companies don’t do things because their nice – despite their authenticity washing. Their job is to make money. If that means taking the public sector for a ride, so be it. I remember sitting on a train with a former colleague in my first few months as a civil servant, where we overheard a brash grey suit on the phone saying the following:

“Have you heard of this Freedom of Information Act? Well, it’s coming into force on 1st January 2005. Guess how many public bodies there are that are subject to the Act? 100,000! Yes, one hundred thousand! We could set ourselves up as consultants on Freedom of Information and make a fortune!”

How many other pieces of legislation have had suits from all over the place setting themselves up with this sort of mindset? The challenge for people running tenders, procurement and commissioning exercises is to separate the experts from the suits.

Questions for the Transport Select Committee to ask

Apart from the very public disagreement that quickly needs resolving – something I expect the Transport Select Committee will want to take evidence on, I would urge the Committee to look at (and possibly call for written evidence on) the following:

  • The resources the four responding companies to the West Coast tendering exercise put in. They don’t need to name names, but numbers of people, their functions and ballpark figures on their salaries or commissions would be useful.
  • The resources that the Department for Transport had allocated to handling this tender – not naming names but grades, specialisms, full-time-equivalents and details of any consultants and consultancies brought in to help manage the tender

The Committee then needs to examine if the two sides (DfT vs the corporations) were reasonably matched. It also needs to decide whether the DfT had allocated sufficient resources – quantities of personnel with the skills and expertise to handle such a high profile and high value tender.

During my time in the high profile policy area I mentioned above, one of the things going through my mind at the time was that in our team alone we did not have the resources we needed in order to do our jobs properly. In particular I felt that as a team we needed far more support and resources than we were getting – and it was something I really felt under a lot of strain over. The idea that an even-further-reduced team can carry out such functions is something I find quite frankly laughable. Yes, there are some functions in the civil service and public sector that don’t really need doing – things where people could be reallocated to somewhere that really needs that level of resourcing. In this era of cuts, civil servants and ministers have to be brave enough to stand up to the Treasury and demand an increase in such resources. Otherwise even greater sums will be lost to a private sector that can afford to run rings around it.

Civil servants – and in particular permanent secretaries also need to consider pressing that big red button calling for a ministerial direction. If they don’t have the staff or the resources to ensure value for money for the tax payer – to the extent that going ahead without such resources in place could lead to a loss to the taxpayer, they surely have a duty to ask for a direction. This means that the Comptroller and Auditor General is informed, and thus the Public Accounts Committee is too. As a result, the problems are escalated to Parliament and the public. Unfortunately three-line-whips mean nothing ever really happens other than civil servants are absolved from blame when things go wrong – as they inevitably do with such things. As far as DfT is concerned, three permanent secretaries in three years (Robert Devereux followed by Lin Homer followed by the current incumbent Philip Ruttnam), along with three transport secretaries in as many years (Hammond, then Greening and now McLoughlin – who is one of four new ministers at DfT following a complete clearout of Tory ministers there in the first Coalition reshuffle) bodes ill.

With about two and a half years until the next election, don’t expect the current set of ministers at the DfT to be in place in three years time – irrespective of who wins the election.

Longterm planning – what’s that?

Insofar as being able to plan for the long term, the civil service in principle should be able to compensate for the regular churn of ministers as far as corporate memory goes. Or is that chillingly part of the agenda? Have this churn to destroy the institutionalised corporate memory so as to make ‘change’ easier? This was one of the accusations levelled at the Coalition at the Policy and Politics Conference I was at last month. If that is the case, it makes for a stupendously expensive change process to say the least.

If Labour backed outsourcing, why didn’t they set up proper training systems?

Lots of outsourcing happened on Labour’s watch – yet it’s taken until now to get a public sector skills academy launched. One of Labour’s greatest failings as far as its politicians were concerned was it failed to train and educate those who would later take ministerial office on how large organisations function. Similar mistakes are being made by the Coalition too in a number of very high profile outsourcing failures.

Should we have a royal commission on outsourcing?

It’s got to the stage where there have been so many high profile screw ups, and (as far as Margaret Hodge of the Public Accounts Committee is concerned), too little evidence that recommendations made by select committees are being taken on board. Such a commission would in my view look at outsourcing from a both ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice’ viewpoint. What are the ‘in principle’ issues? One for me is the telephone number salaries of chief executives of outsourcing firms that get most of their business from the public sector. If such salaries are unacceptable for those that work directly for the public sector, why is it less unacceptable for those that get the majority of their income from the same sector?

In terms of the ‘in practice’ issues, are there any patterns with failures in outsourcing? Poorly-resourced and trained commissioning organisations? Poor contract management? Bad management practices by the contract deliverer? Wider knock-on impacts of those working on minimum wages for outsourcing firms? Are the short-term savings provided by outsourcing having longer term impacts and costs on society? We need someone or something to look at the bigger picture. A royal commission could do this.



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