This note summarises developments from March to July 2020 - the period when the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was at its (first?) peak. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.
Appointment of new Chief Operating Officer
Alex Chisholm was appointed Civil Service COO to replace CEO John Manzoni. It did not appear that he was expected to lead anything that could be described as radical or fundamental reform.
[The Cabinet Secretary] has asked Chisholm to “lead the ongoing transformation of the civil service to further enhance its efficiency, effectiveness and agility, creating the high performance, innovative and digitally powered service we need for the times we are in”. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove: “… Alex will be responsible for supporting ministers to develop and then drive forward a reform programme for the civil service, building on the government’s existing efficiency programme.”
But Mr Chisholm did make one interesting comment on being appointed:- that he hoped to see Whitehall civil servants change the way they describe their jobs from "I work in department X and am responsible for policy Y" to "I am trying to achieve these outcomes". Many had suggested this before him, but Mr Chisholm is in a better position than most to achieve this useful change.
PAC Criticises Transport Permanent Secretary re HS2
The Public Accounts Committee issued a report in May 2020 which was highly critical of the Department for Transport's Permanent Secretary. (The PAC is the only part of Parliament to which civil servants are directly accountable.)
It remains to be seen whether the Permanent Secretary was obeying Ministerial orders to withhold information, and if so whether she should have done. It is of course sometimes the case that officials cannot be entirely frank when giving evidence to Parliamentary committees but it is usually possible for their difficulty to be explained to the Committee Clerks, or to the Committee Chair.
Here is the summary of the PAC's report:
The High Speed Two programme has gone badly off-course and is now estimated to cost up to £88 billion, significantly more than the original budget of £55.7 billion (both figures are 2015 prices). We are unconvinced that there will not be further cost increases, such as those we have seen in Crossrail and many other programmes, especially given that the route and forecast cost of the northern sections of the proposed railway is still very uncertain and will remain so for years to come. Passengers will not see the benefits from Phase One between London and the West Midlands until 2029 at the earliest, compared to the original plan of 2026, with passengers in the North having to wait much longer while the Government decides the future of the northern sections of the railway.
As well as cost increases and delays, public confidence in the programme has been undermined. At best, the Department for Transport’s (the Department’s) previous evidence to the Committee has been less than clear. The Department withheld information from us which would have given a clearer and more accurate picture of the budget and schedule pressures the project was facing. The Department and High Speed Two Ltd (HS2 Ltd) seemed to believe that a lack of transparency with Parliament and the public on the problems facing the programme would in some way protect it. With so many peoples’ homes and livelihoods affected by the construction of the railway, there is no justification for the Department and HS2 Ltd having been so opaque about the delays and budget overruns. Now that the Government has given the programme the green light, things must change and there must be much greater transparency in future.
What we have seen about Government’s management of this programme is all too familiar and we remain concerned that lessons from the delivery of other major projects are still not being learned. To protect taxpayers’ money there should be far greater focus on fostering and embedding a culture that values learning from experience to do things even better and avoid repeating the same mistakes. We will regularly examine how this programme is progressing and what the Department and HS2 Ltd are doing to address our recommendations for improvement.
PACAC Chair - Valedictory Comments
Outgoing Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, made the following comments when interviewed by Civil Service World in April 2020.
Institutional memory and misfits
The “procession of civil servants” through critical roles is a great source of frustration for Jenkin. On several occasions, he says, PACAC has challenged government with the following question: “How do you develop an institutional memory if the civil servants are changing every two or three years?”
In the last couple of years, however, the message has started to get through.
“Everybody now says this, which is very satisfactory,” he says, pointing to the introduction of special responsibility allowances under then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. But Jenkin adds that he was disappointed to hear that only 25 officials had been given the allowance – intended to incentivise them to stay in their jobs while they oversaw big projects – and that it amounted to around 2.5% to 3% of their salary.
“That is not going to change the price of fish. If somebody is a deputy director general in charge of a very big programme and they need to stay on in that job and run that programme, they should be promoted to director general or assistant permanent secretary in that role so they can carry on developing their career and being promoted, without taking their responsibilities away and starting again with somebody else.”
As well as institutional memory, Jenkin is concerned about retaining skills. “As I’m endlessly pointing out, the Fulton Report [on the civil service] in 1967 reported that there was a ‘cult of the generalist’.
“And it’s far worse now than it used to be, in that there used to be a vertical career structure in each department. Generally, the permanent secretary would come from within that department, and they would know that department backwards.”
That is no longer the norm, he says. “I’ve even heard it said, ‘Oh, we can’t give that job to that person, he loves it too much. He knows and loves it too much, we must have somebody from outside.’ The idea being that they would somehow have been purchased by the department.
Now, he says there is a “certain lack of diversity in the way permanent secretaries tend to think – there is a house style, which typically revolves around Oxford PPE”.
His comments bring to mind the infamous blog post by top spad Dominic Cummings, urging “misfits and weirdos” to apply for civil service roles. “First of all, there are misfits and weirdos in the civil service. I would say that they are valued for their expertise, but they tend to be held down at a certain level,” Jenkin says.
PACAC once said the relationship between ministers and officials was the “fulcrum of Whitehall effectiveness”. Its 2018 report on the subject described that relationship as one of “unrequited love”.
“I didn’t quite like the phrase,” Jenkin says, but explains: “The civil servant wants to serve the minister, wants to save the minister from embarrassment, wants to save the department from embarrassment by not letting the minister do things which they think will cause embarrassment.”
Knowing this has been a great asset to Jenkin in his decade chairing PACAC, he says. “I think for select committees to get the best sides of civil service witnesses, you’ve got to understand what the relationship is with the minister. They’re not allowed to say whatever they want, or whatever they think is right.”
Asked to recall his favourite witnesses to PACAC, Jenkin says Peter Hennessy, the academic and historian of government, was “always terrific”.
Hennessy spoke to the committee about civil service leadership in 2012. “I remember when the role of the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary was split, we were asking, can this really work? And he just looked quizzically back at the committee and said, no, it won’t work. And somebody said, well, why won’t it work? ‘Because the cabinet secretary is always top dog’.”
“It was just so graphic. The government had made this whole pretence that somehow the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary were going to share the car together from Wimbledon every morning, they were going to be equals and they were going to work as a team. And it simply didn’t operate like that, which is why Jeremy Heywood [ultimately] became head of the civil service.”
Cabinet Office Non-Exec Directors
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove made some 'interesting' appointments to his Departmental Board in May 2020. Rather than seek management or financial expertise, he instead appointed four directors who had strong political views. As the IfG's Alex Thomas pointed out, this ran the risk of turning his NEDs into something akin to Spads or GOATS (individuals recruited by previous Prime Ministers seeking to build a Government Of All Talents). Here is Alex's report:
Four new appointments at the Cabinet Office show that Michael Gove wants to make a personal mark on civil service reform. That’s no bad thing, but non-executive directors shouldn’t act as additional ministers or special advisers, says Alex Thomas
One of the changes to government Francis Maude brought in when he was Minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010 to 2015 was to strengthen the network of non-executive directors (NEDs), with three or four in each department. Maude, with the government’s then lead NED Lord Browne, required secretaries of state – rather than permanent secretaries, as had been the case previously – to appoint board members who were drawn from business and commercial sectors.
Michael Gove clearly agrees on the value of ministers making these appointments, but perhaps less on the need for them to come from a business or commercial background. He has recruited Simone Finn, Gisela Stuart, Henry De Zoete and Bernard Hogan-Howe to sit on the Cabinet Office’s board. Nobody imagines these appointments are the product of a bureaucratic sifting exercise. Finn, Stuart and De Zoete have worked closely with Gove in the past (Finn and De Zoete were special advisers), and he will use these four influential characters to shape and make real plans to reform the civil service. But they have limited business experience, with only De Zoete having run a commercial enterprise.
NEDs have contributed most when applying business experience to project delivery
It's not unusual for governments to bring in policy advisers as ministers, like in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”, or even as “Tsars” with executive responsibility for specific issues, but non-executive directors have a specific function – to support and challenge on project delivery, not the policy decisions of ministers.
The original intention was to use them to revive departmental boards which had become marginal to the life of most departments. These were set up to bring the benefits of private sector boards to departments, challenging them on how they run their work programmes. But the effectiveness of these meetings has been patchy, with secretaries of state giving their chairing duties wildly differing levels of priority and even Lord Browne describing their success as “ragged” in 2015.
The main contribution of successful NEDs has been outside the formal structures, getting under the skin of departments, focusing on project delivery and keeping on the pressure for departments to see change through. Having a commercial, delivery or finance expert on tap who has the interests of the department at heart, but is able to constructively challenge civil servants and ministers around whether their plans are actually going to work, has been a success.
While there is always room for improvement, the existence of the NED network of skills and expertise has helped governments get better at delivering projects for citizens.
The value of being non-executive
NEDs bring something different to a department precisely because they sit outside the usual structures, and the nature of their part-time roles allows them to continue with successful business and other careers. Non-executives are a noticeably different beast from both permanent secretaries and ministers, not beholden to civil service or political machines.
One of the questions this new crop of Cabinet Office NEDs raises is whether Gove, as the minister who has more influence on this subject than any other, believes in this model. We should look to see who Gove appoints as the government’s lead non-executive director to give a further sense of his wider approach. His hires have previously prompted comment – at both the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs he cleared out boards with a view to installing NEDs working for 3 or 4 days a week on the detail of policy and delivery. If the government does start requiring people to give more time to these roles it will change the nature of the appointments, and the individuals who apply for them. We might expect to see fewer practicing business executives and more NEDs acting as quasi-special advisers or ministers.
The Cabinet Office appointments look to be in this mould. Gove’s new team members are well established operators and have significant personal qualities, but their experience lies less in the world of commercial delivery and more in the sphere of politics and public policy. That is useful, of course, but has not been the role of NEDs in the past, and risks muddying the function of ministers as decision-makers on policy.
NEDs exist to challenge
Going too far down this route would erode the value of NEDs. There’s nothing wrong with a government wanting to bring in outside executive expertise, seeking people with particular skills to come in and run parts of the civil service, or drawing on a wide pool of political advice. But that can happen already, by ministerial appointment in the Lords, the usual special adviser process, or through civil service procedures as occurred with the recruitment of the former Chief Executive of the Civil Service, John Manzoni.
NEDs need to have the freedom and skills to challenge ministers and civil servants. Constructive challenge makes for good government and helps avoid delivery mistakes. Non-executive voices exist in order to amplify – in private – that challenge. A strong government should welcome such challenge.
Michael Gove - The Privilege of Public Service
(In effect Deputy PM) Michael Gove delivered the above named speech in June 2020. Paras 49- began:- "But if this Government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself".
The speech was greeted with very mixed reviews. Taken a face value, it offered the prospect of moving decision-makers out of London, the recruitment of "a broader and deeper pool of decision-makers", more rigorous evaluation of Government programmes, better civil service training, less frequent civil service moves, and various other good things, including innovation. But others noted that Mr Gove took no responsibility for creating the problems that he now vowed to tackle, and doubted whether others in the Government, and indeed Mr Gove himself, were really committed to what he seemed to be promising. It did not seem likely, for instance, that Ministers - the real key decision makers - would themselves move North. The proof of the pudding will, as they say, be in the eating.
COO Alex Chisholm's Speech to Civil Service Live Conference July 2020
This extract begins to build on Michael Gove;'s speech (above) but doesn't add any serious detail
I would draw out three key areas to ask you to focus on: innovation; data; and barriers to joint working. Recognising these in turn bring into play key issues of skills and training, IT systems, office locations - in sum, what our 21st century workplace should look and feel like.
Do we have the people with the knowledge and skills to do their jobs well? Do we all value sufficiently the time and effort it takes to learn and practice new skills?
Does the Civil Service truly reflect the people we serve? And make the most of all the talents available?
How can we overcome the frustrations of antiquated IT systems, and do a better job of sharing data?
Can we relearn how to set up major programmes, so that they reliably deliver on time and on budget and achieve
Big issues, which flow into countless smaller ones: why can’t one Civil Service pass get you into any building? Why do we operate with incompatible video conferencing systems? Why is it sometimes easier to join as a new recruit from outside, than to transfer between two different departments?
This Civil Service reform programme must make colleagues feel their efforts are valued, their successes rewarded, their ambitions fulfilled.
We are focusing on People and Place, and whether you have what you need to do your jobs.
Because in so many ways, what’s good for civil servants is also good for the country.
Like our commitment to becoming less London-centric – so that you can make progress even if you’re not wanting to be based in the South-East. This means more jobs becoming available in the regions; and our people being more closely rooted in local needs – social, economic, health-related – when they make decisions.
With better defined paths to promotion and recognition, colleagues will no longer feel they must switch roles to secure a promotion and higher pay, instead building the deep knowledge and expertise that helps drive continuous improvement.
And with redoubled awareness of our need to provide a fully diverse and inclusive working environment - where everybody can give of their best - we can be sure every government policy and action reflects the full range and diversity of thought, from people of every social, educational, and ethnic background.
As the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion champion, I recognise that there is much good work happening to create the fully open, welcoming and supportive work environment we want – as expressed in our core HR policies and practices, in the inspiring work of our staff networks, in a thousand daily actions to support colleagues and lend a hand, or make a stand.
But there is also evidence of continuing prejudice, unacknowledged biases, and unequal opportunities. So we have much work to do, and must go faster and further to create a Great Place to Work for everyone.
And by place, I mean not just your physical location. I also mean your place in your organisation, and on the career ladder.
And whether you’re in a good place mentally. Are you feeling stressed - or well supported? Overwhelmed - or suitably stretched? Unfocused - or purposeful? Daunted by the challenges we face - or excited?
My wish is that you feel stretched and excited by your work, well supported by colleagues, pleased to be part of something bigger than any of us - our mission of public service.
It is noticeable that there is not much discussion of the COVID pandemic in the above notes. Analysis and recriminations may well be found in later notes ...!
Subsequent developments are summarised here.