Breaking the silos


Some thoughts on breaking public sector silos 

This blogpost bounces off one speech and one article. The first speech is by the highly-regarded (by me at least!) executive director of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken. (See a transcript of his speech here). The second is by former government auditor David Walker in The Guardian Public Leaders here. (Declaration of interest, I’m an unpaid contributor to the Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network).

Central government-readers may not be aware of recent developments in Cambridgeshire, where Cambridgeshire County Council’s councillors have directed the chief executive to investigate alternative delivery structures for the public sector across the county. (See my blogpost here).

My first experience of public sector silos

This was in the old Government Office for the East of England. This was in the days of what some might call ‘high bureaucracy’. Even those of us working in the office in lower grades at the time knew we could have run a much tighter ship. Amongst the many various things regional offices were charged with doing, bringing together often competing interests was one of them. Some were better than others at this. One of the best I worked for was Isobel Mills – who chaired a cross-departmental project board that I was assigned to support shortly after transferring from Cambridge to Whitehall almost a decade ago. Isobel was able to do what our office in Cambridge struggled with during my time in the middle part of the last decade: bringing together often competing interests and to give them a joint sense of purpose.

What made the East of England that bit more complex was the party politics: A Labour central government dealing with predominantly Conservative local councils. Combined with a rapid turnover of ministers during the Blair/Brown eras, this did little to aid policy stability. Some regional offices were better at managing the Whitehall-local relationships. Others less so. This was reflected in a 2005 peer review (long since archived by the National Archives) that stated the East of England Regional Office did not have strong enough relationships with Whitehall and did not behave as a single entity – rather it tried to represent sometimes competing departmental interests. This was why in 2006 the entire network had a major restructure (reducing lower grade numbers and employing more senior managers) and rebranding to demonstrate a single corporate identity.

Back to Isobel Mills again

When I moved to Whitehall, I described life to friends in Cambridge as ‘hitting the ground running and running very fast!’ I joined a very high-performing division under the watchful eye of the highly respected Andrew Campbell – now on the board of the Department for Communities and Local Government. We were dealing with local government reform, and I was attached to Isobel’s project board that ultimately reported to Andrew’s programme board. Both those boards had a number of influential civil servants representing over ten different Whitehall departments. Yet neither Isobel nor Andrew had to resort to threats or brute force to get to a collective decision. From my perspective I sort of knew I could never aspire to be like they are, but also learnt the easy way of what effective chairing of such groups looked like. It’s something I’m seeing with Dr David Cleevely on the Be the change – Cambridge project.

Being the disruptor

As Simon Parker of the NLGN think tank tweeted:

So who are these radical disruptors? Is Mike Bracken one of them? I’d go as far to say the entire UKGovCamp community are a community of positive disruptors. I remember my first UKGovcamp in early 2011 being surrounded by people who I felt at the time were people who I really connected with. But by that time I had already signed my leaving papers from the civil service. This was also before the GDS (which Mike was to take the lead of) had been formed.

When you’re taking on not just an institution but a culture, getting that transformation will mean fighting battles and taking hits. The nature of the GDS is one where people move into and out of it because the money that the private sector can afford to pay is significantly more. Yet the great thing about the many people I’ve met in the GDS is they have understood and embraced the concept of ‘public service’. Combine that with both technical nous and an understanding of how the private sector works, and you’re less likely to get ripped off. To name but a few, Alice Newton, Emer Coleman, Alex Blandford, Louise Kidney, all awesomely talented people who were able to achieve things that many of us could not – and all now in new pastures and all who I’d have no hesitation in recommending.

Taking the hits as a disruptor – and evolving accordingly

That’s what I’ve gone and done locally in Cambridge. It’s far too early to say whether it’s made any impact or not. But being a disruptor means turning cliche into action. It also means a continually evolving approach – one that responds to feedback and reactions from others. In my case it was starting off blogging on local issues. I started turning up to council meetings soon after, with comment and posts moving in peaks and troughs from supportive to hostile and in-between. It culminated in standing for election but in a manner that broke many of the existing conventions – such as ‘not advertising your opponents or their materials in a positive light’. (It also meant having the first dragon fairy to beat UKIP at the ballot box in Cambridge!) Since then, my approach has evolved further – reaching out to communities outside of Cambridge City, and moving into digital video to record footage of events, presentations and interviews.

In the case above, I made a short video to explain the basics of a local government function

Will John Mazoni, the new chief executive of the civil service be willing to take those hits?

Over two years ago, I wrote a blogpost calling for The Cabinet to be reduced to about ten portfolios – see here. I stand by that principle. A large Cabinet makes it difficult for the Prime Minister to be challenged. A smaller Cabinet in principle is much more effective at holding the Prime Minister of the day accountable. Think of how long meetings are. Then compare how long it takes for 10 people to have their say versus over 20.

The challenge for Mazoni is as David Walker states at the end of his article: Will Mazoni be able to bring a level of co-ordination across Whitehall policy teams that is currently lacking? I don’t mean a ‘top down’ approach, but one similar to how I described Isobel Mills and Andrew Campbell at the top of this blogpost. This also means ministers behaving collegiately as well. Given that we are close to a general election in a coalition government, don’t expect much from them this side of May 2015.

“And all this talk of devolving powers to cities?”

If we go to the screenshot below:


What Mark Lloyd, the Chief Executive of Cambridgeshire County Council is charged with investigating is something that goes far beyond restructuring local government. The problem we have had in Cambridge mirrors that in Whitehall: Where is the strong centre with the legal and financial competency to take the important decisions?

Of the top four most important issues to the people of Cambridge, three are set by Cambridgeshire County Council, the majority of whose councillors represent wards outside the city. (Source ICM via @PhilRodgers)

If you took transport, traffic, roads and cycling, that makes 37 percentage points. Housing, planning and the environment fall within Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council at a district/borough level. That’s 27 percentage points. On ‘the built environment’ that makes 64 percentage points. Having ‘the build environment’ split between three different organisations with three different shades of party political control (City = Labour, County = no overall control, South Cambs = Conservative), is it any wonder that Cambridge struggles with a unified approach?

“Won’t a unitary with an executive ‘Boris style mayor’ solve it?”

Not necessarily. Assuming this at the start would be a case of trying to find a problem to apply a pre-identified solution. It also runs the risk of locking out the wider county & beyond that could provide solutions to some of Cambridge’s housing and traffic problems. This was why I mentioned the rail campaigns for Haverhill (see here) and Wisbech (see here) by name in my speech to Cambridgeshire County Council. This reflects the main area of political disagreement I have with the current Labour-led Cambridge City Council. The latter are (understandably) focussing on the services they deliver directly rather than committing anything to my as yet unproven ideas and schemes. If I were in their position, I’d probably be doing the same thing as them. The onus is on me to show that Be the change – Cambridge can succeed.

“So…back to breaking the silos…?”

For a start it takes a huge personal commitment on someone’s part. Within institutions, it means having a board level champion, someone in middle management passionate about & competent in managing the change, and bringing together anyone who ‘wants to make a positive difference’ in the organisation.

“Isn’t that simply doing things more efficiently within the existing system rather than changing the entire system to reflect a digital age?”

You’ve got to know where you are starting from as well as knowing where you want to get to. Looking at Mike Bracken’s recent remarks, there is one phrase that stands out like a sore thumb:

For me, this demonstrates two new things that aspiring policy advisers need to learn – and quickly:

  1. Learning to code and/or the basics of IT systems
  2. Having a grounding in communities that are the service users

Now, we know diversity remains an issue in the senior civil service. One little nudge I made to the system when I was on the Fast Stream was to persuade Cabinet Office to target the ex-polytechnics as hosts for their outreach events, and have students at established universities step outside to attend them, rather than vice-versa. This reflected my experience as a former Anglia Ruskin post-grad student where, at freshers fairs and social events undergraduates said they felt they weren’t allowed to go to events held in Cambridge’s colleges. This is despite every single Cambridge society I approached during those days saying that Anglia students were more than welcome and treated as equals – similar to being another college of Cambridge University.

In the case of 2), if you’ve not experienced society’s problems, to what extent will it cloud your judgement when advising ministers? (Ministers who are charging you with advising them on solving society’s problems). In the case of 1) coding wasn’t even on the agenda when I joined the civil service a decade ago. It wasn’t even on the agenda when I left in 2011. That’s how quickly things have evolved. But how do you go about retraining such a workforce en masse?

Knowing what are the right questions to ask, and knowing who to ask

In order to meet Mike’s call earlier, policy advisers (and even ministers) will need to know the basics of both in order to ask informed questions of developers and users to inform their decisions. When you are working in a white-hot policy team in Whitehall, you are surrounded by lots of incredibly bright and competent people. In such an environment of work hard, play hard, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world isn’t like that. It’s very easy to assume everyone else shares your own knowledge or outlook. It’s ironic that having teams of such great knowledge and talent can have policy blind spots that are a result of having that knowledge and talent!

That’s one of the reasons why some of the Whitehall apprenticeship schemes I saw seemed to work so well. Attached to a number of middle-to-senior managers were people who were the very service-users Mike spoke about – including people failed by the education system to single parents struggling to gain a foothold in the workplace following years outside the workforce. They were also people who had not been ‘conditioned’ by the system. Accordingly they spoke as they saw. But because they had insights that others from more affluent or academic background did not have, they provided a challenge that policy advisers didn’t see coming. During my final year in the civil service, I’d often run things by the apprentices in our team. Whether it was basic errors to a ‘common sense check’, the apprentices were more than value for money.

It just goes to show that your positive disruptors and radical thinkers don’t need to be expensive consultants. Some of them are probably sitting inside the job centre or housing office of your local council – as service users. What would happen if you employed some of them in teams responsible for redesigning services?


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