Unpicking the details on ‘revolving door’ headlines
Some of you will have seen the headlines on concerns about secondments into Whitehall. This is something Caroline Lucas MP and the Public Accounts Committee have also raised concerns over, the latter in particular over the secondment of private sector tax specialists into HMRC. Greenpeace threw an FoI request at the Department for Energy and Climate Change – with this response/release.
How concerned should we be, and what should we be concerned over?
I’ve worked with people seconded into the civil service – from local government, private sector and voluntary sector. I don’t recall ever having any problems relating to propriety with any of them – I also got on really well with them. If there were any propriety issues, I’d have been the first to have jumped on them.
There are however, two structural issues that the public – and Parliament need to be aware of. They are:
- Independence of expertise
- Oversight of secondees
Independence of expertise
There’s an issue of principle here for me. That principle is ensuring that departments have an in-house technical expertise to match that which the wealthy interests can bring to bear through their lobbying activities. One of the things that disturbed me in a couple of my previous posts was that I felt I did not have the expertise to give some of what was being thrown at me the scrutiny I felt it was due, and that my team did not have the people-power in terms of in-house technical expertise to give proper scrutiny either. We’ve seen some of the results of this lack of expertise, whether in the tax avoidance hearings in front of the Public Accounts Committee, the fiasco of the West Coast Mainline tendering through to the lobbying of Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith. (See my comments here – where I hold Hunt and the Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens responsible).
I don’t have a problem with secondments in principle. Actually, I think when managed well, they can be a really good thing – bringing in a level of insight that a policy team may not have. But secondments have to be properly planned and managed, not least so that the organisation and the individual get the best out of them. (I’ve seen it where this has not happened, which meant too many missed opportunities). Furthermore, there needs to be a sufficient level of informed challenge to what the secondee is inputting into the policy process. At a technical level, this might involve checking the assumptions made in an analytical model. It can work both ways. In a past analysis role, I put together a complex model to help unpick a big problem and used outside expertise to test my model and its assumptions.
But what Whitehall should not be doing is relying on secondees for the technical details where it does not have the technical in-house resource to analyse and expertly scrutinise their work. This for me is one of the positive lessons of the Government Digital Service – they brought in as permanent civil servants the people with that expertise to commission and work with secondees – some of the brightest minds in the digital world. It’s paid dividends. That’s why the cuts to the technical expertise within the civil service is a false economy. It weakens the ability of the civil service to provide impartial advice because it makes it more difficult for the civil service to challenge the submitted research from outside organisations. It also kills the corporate memory of the institution to.
Oversight of secondees
This comes back to the planning and management issue. The first one is that the person doing the line managing needs to be technically competent to scrutinise the work of the secondee. That does not mean they have to have exactly the same skills sets. Rather it means they know what questions to ask and when, and have some understanding of the answers that come back – and act accordingly.
Commercial and financial benefits – who benefits?
One of the issues Margaret Hodge of the Public Accounts Committee had with secondments into HMRC was that private tax advisers were benefiting financially from having their experts seconded into Whitehall. In one case she highlighted one firm advertising the names of such experts in their publicity.
Perhaps what disturbs some people is that such a system of secondments runs the risk of giving a competitive advantage to individual firms – large firms in particular – about how ‘the system’ functions. Smaller firms are less likely to be able to afford to have expert staff seconded into Whitehall for extended periods of time. Thus the balance is weighed against them.
A case for greater transparency and publicity
Perhaps the first question is: How do people go about getting secondments into Whitehall? Is it a case of who you know rather than what you know? Is it always the ‘usual suspects’ that get their staff seconded into key policy and technical roles? Personally I’d like to see more people from less familiar backgrounds spending time in Whitehall – not least because Whitehall and Westminster is a bubble. In order to drive some of the cultural changes in that world, bringing in people who already work in and around the bubble – and/or in and around London will inevitably have their limitations. What about people from other parts of the UK? Are secondment opportunities advertised where those experts happen to be? What are the barriers for such people taking secondments into Whitehall?
Open data and open policy
Moves towards both of these helps with transparency – not least because it means that the work of secondees and technical experts in general can be subject to a greater level of scrutiny from beyond familiar fields. With secondments in general, departments should consider how the role of secondees is going to be both compatible with, and encourage the take up of all things open data and open policy. Remember that the civil service still has a long way to go to achieve the transparency it is capable of. In particular with publishing, civil servants should be seeing publication as the norm unless there are exceptional circumstances not to publish – rather than the other way around. Yes, I still bear the scars of those battles – not all of which I won.