The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform (16)

The majority Conservative government was elected (to their and everyone else's surprise) on 7 May 2015. Only a few days later, in a speech to the FDA union's annual conference on 14 May, civil service CEO John Manzoni signaled the end of "the Francis Maude era".

John Manzoni's Speech

Mr Manzoni said that the last five years – in which Francis Maude had overseen major efforts to sharpen the cross-departmental functions of the civil service and improve its ability to deal with private sector suppliers – had been about tackling Whitehall’s shortcomings. But he said the fresh team at the Cabinet Office now wanted to move to a new phase, with a focus on closer working between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office at the centre of government, as well as across departments.

Mr Manzoni went on to say that Matt Hancock, the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, wanted to see a more "collaborative" relationship between departments and the centre of government. "Our first step was to intervene and this was the Francis Maude era ... There was an intervention in stopping all the bad stuff happening. But what we hadn’t figured out how to do was how to enable the good stuff to happen." There was now a “a dawning recognition” that “the modus operandi of the last five years won’t get us where we want to be ... the good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn’t happen when you put great people in the centre. ... I know we can be more efficient; the question is how do we mobilise the organisation in getting there?

Failure of Efficiency Drive

One of the most high profile failures of the much resented Maude regime was the subject of an NAO report in May 2016. The NAO reported that an attempt to make savings by merging back office services - such as finance and human resources - had cost £4m more than it had saved. Much of the blame was laid at the door of Mr Maude's department, the Cabinet Office, which, as so often, tried to drive through the change programme (a) too quickly and (b) without proper planning, the political timetable having taken precedence over all other considerations. Three large departments - including the Treasury! - had quit the scheme because it wasn't working. And even if there had been net cost savings, one wonders what damage would have been done as a result of senior departmental officials losing direct control of such vital functions.

Matt Hancock's speech

Matt Hancock himself, the newly appointed Cabinet Office Minister (and close ally of Chancellor George Osborne) then delivered an interesting speech Making the Civil Service Work for Modern Britain on 22 May at the Institute for Government. Why interesting? This was mainly because there was a significant list of controversial issues that Mr Hancock did not mention. In particular, there was nothing on:

Instead, I noted the following:

As so often, therefore, both John Manzoni's and Matt Hancock's this speeches had nothing to do with real civil service reform, but the latter did promise continued promotion of greater diversity, good leadership and better management/HR practice. There was therefore nothing in his speech that had not been said by both Ministers and civil service leaders in every decade since the the 1980s. Indeed, approached in this way, it was a bit depressing that Mr Hancock needed to be saying these things when they have been said so often before - but I suppose he had to say something. The full speech is here.

But then ...

... Ministers began to behave in a rather sneaky way. A new Ministerial Code was published which still required Ministers to obey the law, but omitted previous versions' references to the need to obey international law. The Cabinet Office itself did not draw attention to this potentially significant change, but responded, on being challenged, that the previous reference to international law had been unnecessary as it was subsumed within the definition of law.

Equally controversially, and again without consultation or announcement, a new Special Advisers Code was published which for the first time allowed SpAds to convey Ministers' instructions to permanent officials. Again, commentators expressed concern that this apparently minor change in fact fundamentally altered the status of Special Advisers. Indeed, an earlier attempt,to make this change, some years previously, had been abandoned in the face of opposition. A fuller discussion of this issue is here.

2016

The Government published so-called Single Departmental Plans in February 2016 to a chorus of derision. The plans did little more than list what each department hoped to achieve as listed in the election manifesto, without adding a detailed timetable or any discussion of resources and potential obstacles. Their publication was a total waste of time and resources, and one could only hope that it was driven by Ministers rather than officials.

The NAO report Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers' money was a much more interesting document because it sought to open up for debate the relationship between Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. The NAO's press release noted that "[Permanent Secretaries] appear to lack confidence to challenge Ministers where they have concerns about the feasibility or value for money of new policies or decisions, not least because standing up to Ministers is seen as damaging to a civil servant’s career prospects". This was surely devastating criticism of senior professionals whose overriding duty is to 'speak truth unto power'.

Here are some extracts from the report: (AOs = Accounting Officers - i.e. usually Permanent Secretaries.)

AOs require, as well as a high degree of skill and experience, the right incentives and support to allow them to perform it effectively. However, as the complexity of both policy and implementation has increased over the decades, the balance of pressures on AOs has shifted in a way that potentially undermines accountability to Parliament. AOs now operate in an environment where ministers often perform a more ‘executive’ role in policy implementation and have sought greater involvement in top civil service appointments, while appointing increasingly influential special advisers to act on their behalf. This appears to have tilted the balance so that AOs have greater pressures to give weight to political drivers rather than public value. The increased rigour of backbench committees and greater government transparency have had some compensating effect, but overall there are serious concerns that these developments are steadily eroding AO accountability to Parliament.

We consider that action is needed to rebalance the incentives on AOs, if the checks and balances required by Parliament over taxpayers’ money are to be effective in the modern government environment. To counterbalance the shift towards political drivers, in our view effective accountability now requires that permanent secretaries explicitly exercise their responsibility to Parliament as accounting officers in a more transparent and positive way.

The NAO accordingly recommended that:

HM Treasury should introduce a new requirement on AOs to provide positive assurance about regularity, propriety, feasibility and value for money ahead of key implementation decisions. This would be an extension of existing requirements in Managing Public Money relating to major projects and policy initiatives,3 and would reinforce scrutiny processes by providing assurance that appropriate, informed judgements had been made before public resources were committed. For example, HM Treasury should require for major projects and policy initiatives:

  • more explicit sign-off by AOs at certain implementation stages, such as at business case approval and when major changes to project specifications are agreed; and
  • AO assessments to be prepared following Treasury guidelines, where AOs have concerns about the regularity, propriety, feasibility or value for money of particular policies. AOs should make their AO assessments available to Parliament and HM Treasury should report regularly on the number of AO assessments, in the interests of transparency.

HM Treasury needs to provide stronger leadership to AOs across government, to fulfil its lead role as the guardian of overall government accountability.

In justifying its concerns and its recommendations, the NAO noted that:

Over the period [1990-2015] there were [a number of] major reforms or projects which raised serious value-for-money or feasibility concerns, but where no directions were requested. ... [Examples of] three instances where there were clear warnings from the then-Major Projects Authority, the [Public Accounts] Committee, other select committees, and/or the National Audit Office about risks to value for money were:- [the Agricultural Single Payments Scheme, The FiReControl project and the National Programme for IT in the National Health Service]. On several occasions, the Committee has specifically said that AOs should have sought directions; for example, on alternative higher education providers, the FiReControl project, the affordability of defence procurement, and the Single Payment Scheme for farm payments.

HM Treasury told us it did not record when AOs raised concerns but stopped short of seeking a direction; hence there were no data on ‘near misses’ in these or other cases. In the view of Margaret Hodge, then-Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, these cases indicated that the ministerial direction mechanism was not working effectively. She cited the particular case of a decision to enter into a contract for aircraft carrier procurement when the Committee had expressed concerns over the affordability of the defence budget:

“... Somebody should have stopped it at that point, but the Permanent Secretary did not request a letter of direction. We went ahead and, because the money was not there, we delayed the building of those aircraft carriers and probably incurred £2 billion of extra cost. The system [for seeking ministerial directions] that is there at present is not working.”

The evidence suggests the crucial relationship between ministers and civil servants is under strain from a combination of factors, which affects the balance of incentives on AOs. In 2011, the Committee noted that the demarcation between ministerial responsibility for policy and accounting officer responsibility for implementation has blurred, as ministers in successive administrations have taken a closer interest in how their policies are delivered. Ministers may express rm preferences about the detail or timing of policy implementation, which can mean officials are held responsible for implementation decisions not directly under their control. Recent examples of close ministerial involvement in policy implementation include central efficiency measures imposed on all departments, and payment by results schemes in welfare and justice. Ministers have also sought greater influence over appointments to permanent secretary posts, as proposed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, despite concerns about safeguarding the independence and political neutrality of civil service appointments. Since October 2014, the Prime Minister has been able to choose whom to appoint to a permanent secretary job, from a list of appointable candidates.

More information about Ministerial Directions can be found here.

Extended Ministerial Offices

Clare Moriarty, DEFRA's Permanent Secretary, made some interesting comments, in March 2016, on her department's introduction of an EMO. She made it sound as though it didn't amount to much more than a re-branding of the familiar combination of Private Office, departmental strategy unit and small group of special advisers. But she wasn't asked about the distribution of power within the EMO. Who is responsible for ensuring the effectiveness (and proper behaviour) of her 'multiple bridges'?

I have added emphasis in the following extracts from her remarks:

 “I think what’s been really interesting is that the EMO has allowed us to access a different group of people who can come in and ask questions – who see the world in a different way,” she says. “In practice, a lot of what they’re looking at are cross-cutting issues. So Ellen was from ODI, and data is a cross-cutting issue. They are specialists but they’re not like special advisers, because special advisers are clearly political. We have great special advisers too, but [the members of the EMO] are just injecting a bit of different thinking. They work very closely with the secretary of state, but they also work very closely with the relevant civil servants. So they sit in the strategy unit.”
...
So fears that EMOs could politicise key parts of the civil service and, in the words of FDA general secretary Dave Penman, “act as a firewall between impartial, evidence-based advice and the minister” are unfounded?  It’s clear Moriarty sees no cause for concern. “Our EMO is more like an enriched strategy unit, rather than a turbo-charged private office,” she says.

“It just means that we’ve got a spectrum, from our deep subject matter experts and the strategy unit, to our EMO specialists, private office and special advisers. .... When I was a principal private secretary 20 years ago, the private office was the main bridge. What we’re doing is creating multiple bridges, so the whole thing is more resilient.”

 

Civil Service Leaders announced a new Civil Service Vision Statement in June 2016. Sadly, however, it seemed pretty identical to many of their predecessors' promises of improved leadership, better skills and so on. And it lacked any supporting detail. A missed opportunity maybe? Or a necessary renewal of an vision that cannot be restated too often?

Here is the full announcement:

The world is changing. And it’s changing in ways that, as a Civil Service, we can’t afford to ignore. Technology is revolutionising how the public buy goods and services and manage other aspects of their lives. They rightly expect to be able to deal with government in the same way - online, on demand, often through a smartphone or tablet. At the same time, the face of society itself is changing – it’s more diverse than it's ever been.

At this year’s Civil Service Live, taking place in five cities across Scotland, England and Wales, we are launching our vision for 'A brilliant Civil Service'. One that is capable of serving modern Britain. One that truly reflects the people it serves and provides opportunity for talented people to fulfil their potential, regardless of their background.

Public trust in civil servants is now at record levels. This is hard-earned. Over recent years you have proved again and again your ability to work more collaboratively, to be more innovative, to deliver more for less – building high-quality services around the needs of users at a lower cost. If we are to become the Civil Service described by the vision we must continue to work in this way.

This vision for the Civil Service of the future, developed with the help of many, has four main elements:

  1. Improved outcomes – a much stronger focus on the difference we can make for citizens, not just on processes and procedures
  2. Effective leadership – with confident leaders who inspire and empower colleagues to be the best they can be
  3. Skilled people – our commitment to building a broader set of skills in the Civil Service, to make us more effective and offer more varied careers that will help us retain and attract the best talent
  4. A great place to work – creating a truly inclusive environment, in open, modern workplaces, with the technology to get the job done

All supported by the enduring and universally admired values of the Civil Service - integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity - which underpin everything we do.

Pretending change isn’t happening is not an option. Keeping pace with it is a necessity. But our vision goes further than this; it is about embracing change, and grasping the opportunities it presents to become brilliant in everything we do.

As leaders of the Civil Service, our job is to help you to do this. We will forge new career paths; increase opportunities for all civil servants; help departments to work more seamlessly together across boundaries; provide more options for individuals to gain experience and learn skills; and create workplaces that are fit for purpose, with modern facilities and up-to-date technology.

That’s what’s in it for you – to be part of the best Civil Service in the world and the most inclusive employer in the country. To be proud of what we do as civil servants every day; and for everyone in the country to take pride in us.

So, join us on this journey. There’s a role for everyone in taking responsibility for improving, exploring development opportunities, doing things differently, and inspiring colleagues. If you haven’t already, come along to the Civil Service Live event nearest you to hear more - after Glasgow, today, we will be visiting Sheffield, Coventry, Cardiff and London. Each one of these is built around the vision's four themes.

Then go out, lead effectively, develop your skills, deliver the best service, and help us become "A brilliant Civil Service" for the country, your fellow citizens and yourselves.

And then came the 23 June 2016 Brexit referendum and a new Conservative Prime Minister. Subsequent developments are summarised here.

Martin Stanley