Whitehall woes revisited

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The Jeremy Hunt debacle raises again the issue of Whitehall reform. Our reputedly ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service actually has deep flaws in its institutional make-up and needs to be modernised

This week saw an extraordinary outburst from the most recently retired head of the civil service, Lord Gus O’Donnell. He said, on the BBC: ‘When governments go through difficult patches you are looking for who you can blame. The issue comes up of “well, let’s try and blame the civil service”. It does not usually work and I don’t think it will work this time either.’

Now I am not one of those who would blame the government’s current ills on the civil service, or at any rate not entirely. Most of what has happened to them has been because of crass and rushed policy-making on the hoof, without proper thought and analysis. Certainly, sometimes civil servants have failed to say ‘no, minister’ when they should have, but ministers have only themselves to blame when things go wrong. Ministers who allow official or unofficial advisers to run amok, as in Defence or now DCMS, can hardly blame the civil service for not stopping them (even if the CS should have).

But that does not exonerate the civil service. I have been saying for years that our supposedly ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has deep flaws in its institutional make-up.

The civil service has four essential roles, which provide a useful template for thinking about what they are good, and bad, at:

  • Counsellors: advising the elected government on which policy options to choose, what evidence exists, and how best to turn policies into practical realities. It does not mean, as some senior mandarins now seem to think, doing whatever a minister wants.
  • Conservators: defending the rule of law, constitutionality, and probity in the administration of public services and policy-making, including when necessary saying ‘no, minister’.
  • Chief Executives: actually running, in a non-partisan way, those services that are (for whatever reason) actually run by the civil service, such as tax collection, benefits payments, or prisons.
  • Cooperators: with the 90% of the UK public services that are not part of Whitehall, including devolved and local government, to ensure ‘joined-up’ public services.

The recent crises have tended to involved instances where mandarins should have acted as Conservators and didn’t – the Liam Fox-Adam Werritty affair (Defence) and now the Jeremy Hunt-Adam Smith (Culture, Media and Sport) scandal. Or the many cases where civil servants as Counsellors should have said ‘are you sure, minister?’ – and sought a formal ministerial direction – before going ahead (the list of these cock-ups is too long to detail).

The civil service, especially the senior ‘mandarinate’, which has little or no experience of actually running the local public services that make up the bulk of UK public activities, is also especially poor at working with other public servants. This often leads to ‘failures of implementation’. Actually, these are usually failures of policy – in the sense that any good policy formulation process would have identified the potential elephant traps before going ahead.

But the culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’ is ingrained in the civil service, and the oft-repeated claims that we have a ‘Rolls Royce’ seervice that is the envy of the world simply reinforces this sense of superiority. This is replicated inside Whitehall, with the Treasury seeing itself as inherently superior to everyone else and suffering from a massive ‘not invented here’ sense of hubris.

Despite recent improvements in recruitment, the top 3-5,000 civil servants are still dominated by the culture of public school and Oxbridge educated ‘Fast Streamers’, with little experience or advanced training. Intelligent they certainly are, good at understanding ‘implementation’ they certainly are not.

Does that matter if ‘those that can, do policy, those that can’t, run services’? It matters because you cannot do good policy without a good understanding of ‘doing’ implementation.

So what is needed? In no particular order, and by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of my priorities would be:

1) A thorough review of what public services actually need to be delivered through national structures. For example, tax collection does not have to be through a single national agency, likewise prisons or job centres. In all three cases other countries have localised versions of these. Having, for example, a regionalised or even localised tax agency would allow for more innovation and experimentation, whilst maintaining national rules.

2) The Treasury should be divided into a Finance Ministry and an Economics Ministry (maybe the latter merged with BIS). The Finance Ministry should be much more clearly subordinate to the Prime Minister’s office, rather then being treated as an equal or even superior body.

3) A Prime Minister’s Department is needed, with substantial policy analysis and implementation follow-up capability and a strong coordinating role, including setting spending and legislative priorities and evaluating progress.

4) Entry to the Senior Civil Service should require two ‘hygiene’ factors: a suitable higher qualification (Masters or PhD) and direct and substantial experience (at least 12 months) of managing front-line public services outside of the Whitehall environment (e.g. local government, health, policing, etc). There should also be more direct entry into all parts of the civil service from other public services.

5) A fundamental change in the accountability of civil servants, opening them up to much greater scrutiny by Parliament. A new set of rules are needed detailing when civil servants are accountable to Parliament for (a) the policy advice that they give and (b) the discharge of their management duties for the implementation of policy.

6) This would entail a significant allocation of resources to Parliament and maybe a change to the mandate and role of the National Audit Office to formally give it a role in supporting all Parliamentary scrutiny committees on both financial and ‘value for money’ issues.

7) Opening up of the public finance process by having draft Budgets (and Spending Reviews) published as White Papers and making the authorisation process through Parliament much more open to debate, including involving the sectoral Select Committees. This should include the creation of a Parliamentary Budget Office, subsuming the Office of Budget Responsibility, to provide truly independent and non-partisan analysis of spending plans (similar to the Congressional Budget Office in Washington).

These are just a few ideas, but what is certainly needed is a fresh approach.

This blog first appeared on Whitehall Watch

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is Professor of Government in the School of Social Sciences (Politics), University of Manchester, and a former adviser to the Treasury select committee. He writes and comments widely on public management reform. Colin has worked with numerous national and international public sector organisations, as an adviser, consultant and researcher. He blogs at Manchester Policy Blogs.

2 comments on Whitehall woes revisited

  1. Warren Park says:

    I completely agree with the above article. What is missing is to also recognise that the situation is made worse by career politicians who have never held down outside jobs or obtained post graduate professional qualifications. They do not know how to lead, manage, monitor and change. This is all doing serious harm to the UK economy and society – unlike ‘Yes Minister’ it is not funny.

    I believe there are many intelligent and dedicated people working in the Civil Service. When I worked in a Government Office for a few months I saw this and I watched as an experienced auditor and management consultant. They were locked in to an organisational culture that was fundamentally flawed and very out of touch with modern good management practice. The culture did have a feeling of intellectual superiority. But whilst the officers I dealt with were very bright, and capable of considerable insight in meetings etc, they were not professionally trained and qualified. They seemed to spend most of their day in a stressful fire fighting mode attending to short term risks and issues. These risks and issues arose from challenges coming down from senior levels (minister worry), concern about about reputation and addressing operational problems that would not have arisen if they had been professionally qualified and had implemented effective internal controls and management practices.

    Some of this is really simple – for example put a qualified accountant in charge of financial management!

    There seemed to be another issue. They acted as administrators and did not have the will to challenge as managers. A manager, when he / she sees something internal or external that is poorly designed or poorly implemented, will not rest. A manager will challenge it and quite often bring about improvement. An administrator just carries on doing something – perhaps in accordance with rules – and ignores all the downsides arising. That is the culture of the Civil Service, the intellect of its officers is there, but somehow sidelined and hugely wasted.

    The proposals in the article are a way forward and the Civil Service needs a radical shake up. That is my opinion.

  2. Malcolm Lowe says:

    I found myself somewhat perplexed that Colin Talbot has attempted to turn a discussion of a suggested breach of the Ministerial Code into another run-out for his oft-repeated views on the Civil Service. What this seems to come down to is a contention that, amongst its other claimed failings, the Civil Service does not say “no, Minister” often enough.

    Mr Talbot is not alone here. But there is another camp which says that the problem with the Civil Service is the opposite – that it says “no can do” to Ministers, frustrating the implementation of what the voters have asked for. At this point you will have to forgive my cynical questioning of whether the choice of which camp any commentator falls in is somehow connected to whether the Ministers in question are trying to implement policies of which the commentator approves – the Civil Service fails to stop that which is opposed, and obstructs that which is supported.

    But where Colin Talbot is more alone is in his suggestion that there are “oft-repeated claims” about a Rolls Royce Civil Service. A simple bit of research – okay, I Googled it – indicates that this phrase has cropped up in public once a year for the past five years or so, generally in a right-of-centre newspaper, and always in the context of saying “it isn’t”. (The Google search offered many more references to options for servicing my Rolls Royce, if I drove one.)


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