Accountability and responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service: A response


My thoughts on the IPPR’s report

It feels like I’ve got blogposts coming out of my ears at the moment. It’s that time of year where lots of organisations get their publications out before they head off for the summer.

The IPPR’s report is here. Irrespective of its recommendations, this is an interesting report precedence-wise because it is the first piece of policy that has been ‘outsourced’ – in this case to a think tank. The formal announcement was made in September 2012. The outsourcing of policy in this manner is something that I’ve had issues with for some time – as this Guardian piece demonstrates. (Click on its first comment reference). However, just because I have issues with the principles of how this report was commissioned (issues subsequently taken up by the Public Administration Select Committee) does not mean that the report isn’t worth examining. It is.

The Professor says…

For a point-by-point commentary on the six key recommendations, I commend Professor Colin Talbot’s analysis in his piece Ministers and manderins: time for a change. I broadly concur with his analysis. The only observation I make regarding the first conclusion about the Prime Minister’s ability to select permanent secretaries from a shortlist drawn up by the Civil Service Commissioners relates to the size of the Cabinet. I have gone on record saying that the Cabinet is too big. Colin’s stance on a more collegiate method of selecting permanent secretaries – limiting the Prime Minister’s powers – is more likely to work in a smaller cabinet. The reason being that in a larger cabinet, it’s harder to get a consensus because everyone has to have their say – limiting discussion time for each person. This increases the influence of the Prime Minister in controlling things as there’s less opportunity for more detailed challenge, along with a greater weight of numbers supporting him (history shows it nearly always is a ‘him’) if there is any dissent. Group dynamics – 1 person dissenting in a group of 10 is more powerful than 1 person dissenting in a group of 23.

The civil service – political party interface

The bit that I am interested in is the link between civil service policy making functions and political party policy forums – broadly covered in the second recommendation around direct support to ministers. The reason why this section is interesting subject-wise is that it has the potential to increase the influence of political party members on ministers, increase the ministers’ influence on policy (being proactive rather than reactive, with a stronger evidence and political bases to work from) and reducing the power of the Prime Minister to micromanage individual policy areas.

One of the things that struck me when I got up close to ministers and special advisers in a previous policy area was the lack of visible interaction in the development of policy between ministers, civil servants and the political party the ministers were drawn from. In the era of regular reshuffles, it meant that ministers and their political parties were seldom in control of their own policies, which made it far easier for wealthy, organised vested interests to ‘capture’ a policy area. Because of the hollowing out of a number of policy functions – both in terms of numbers of staff and their calibre/expertise too, all too often it felt like it was the vested interest that had far more resources to draw upon than the department of state, at a time when the ministers concerned were still trying to find their feet policy-wise.

Whitehall project and programme boards

I’ve been having a ponder about these, having sat on numerous project and programme boards to the extent that I’ve lost count of the number. Some have been very small – about five. Some have been ridiculously big – over 25. Some have been complete wastes of time – pre-meetings for meetings followed by a post-meeting meeting. Others have been really effective in helping us solve problems or escalating things upwards to get someone senior to have a quiet word with counterparts in other departments. But all of them were time-limited and had a regular turnover of membership. What looks like being proposed here is that each minister has their own ‘policy board’.

A ministerial policy board

Looking at the summary of recommendation 2, where the minister gets to appoint a group of advisers drawn from the civil service, political party and that catch all ‘experts’ field, a permanent policy board for each minister could work. But the devil will be in the detail. In particular the following:

Ministerial portfolios

There needs to be absolute clarity as to which ministers are the ultimate decision-makers on each area of policy. This means Cabinet ministers firmly delegating to junior ministers and resisting the temptation to then micro-manage. This means setting criteria for escalation. At the same time, this also causes problems for policies that cut across government departments and spending silos. How do you manage this?

Criteria for civil servants

If we are moving into a world where grades and job titles matter less, what will be the processes for shortlisting civil servants for consideration by ministers? Will the application process be open to any civil servant irrespective of grade? What are the safeguards that will prevent non-active party members inside the civil service [non-active because the Civil Service Code prevents them from taking part in party-political activities and public political debate] targeting what is a nice plum role but where a political adviser post would be more suitable? This is especially important regarding propriety.

Criteria for political advisers

In one sense this is more of an issue for political parties: Are your most talented members being selected on merit, or are they being selected because they did PPE at Oxford with the minister & are seen as a good chap? See comment around Jo Johnson‘s appointment.

Criteria for ‘experts’

When is an expert an expert? This is the one that risks being abused – where you can parachute in someone as an expert when really they are politically partisan & are better suited for the above-category.

Party political structures

For me, this is particularly important that these are not forgotten – and that parties look at their existing structures too. If ministers get reshuffled all the time, who are the people that ensure there is policy continuity within the party? Do you have permanent policy forums and committees for each policy area? Should there be representatives from those forums or committees that end up with a seat on the ministerial policy boards to advise ministers on the political party’s view? Finally, what should the rules or conventions be on MPs or peers sitting on such boards? I can see the temptation from the executive’s view: Have a ‘parliamentary private secretary’ or similar on board as a means to help train future ministers and increase the payroll vote in Parliament: MPs that are bound to vote with the executive. Doing this though would undermine the independence of Parliament and its ability to scrutinise the executive without fear or favour.

What would it be like for a civil servant to be cross-examined by such a policy board?

I think it’d be quite fun myself. I’d relish the chance of having the ‘open and frank discussions’ where you can unpick the shortcomings with an academic expert or say to the political advisers that they cannot ‘spin’ the evidence or misrepresent the facts for party political purposes. What you want at the end of the discussions is for the minister to know what the risks and opportunities are, and to take informed decisions knowing what the consequences will be. It’s just as important for ministers to know that a decision is politically unpalatable to their political party at an early stage as it is for ministers to know that there is a limited evidence base. Ditto if a ministerial decision drives a coach and horses through constitutional conventions or even the law. eg awarding a delivery contract to an organisation run by a close friend/party donor that very conveniently wrote the original policy which you adopted. Such ministerial policy boards, if structured properly can be just as effective at stopping bad policy and bad decisions (arguably politically subjective concepts I know) as they are in sharpening up and improving good policy.

Other issues?

It’s a social-media-related one, but I don’t think the concept of special advisers being silenced is tenable. Ditto with academic experts. With both, I think there’s a public interest in both the political advisers and the academic experts being part of the debate, with the caveat that what they say may not reflect government policy – as that is decided by ministers accountable to Parliament. There’s also the convention of how select committees should scrutinise members of such policy boards too. Finally, there also needs to be a rock-solid system of whistleblowing and protection for civil servants where ministers go ahead with things that are improper, unlawful or illegal.

Food for thought.



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