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Bernard Jenkin MP: Can government change fast enough? Or will the whole public services reform agenda fail?

Jenkin Bernard Sep 2011 Bernard Jenkin MP is Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee. He writes here about the Committee's new report on delivering change in government.
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Here is a new select committee report which should be of interest anyone who wants this government to succeed: “Change in Government: the agenda for leadership” (download a PDF of the report).  The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has been following up the promise made by the Prime Minister to “turn government on its head; taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities.” This involves the commitment to the ‘Big Society’; localism and decentralisation; openness and transparency; and making Whitehall fit for the ‘post-bureaucratic age’.  This would be bold and radical at the best of times, but against the overriding priority of deficit reduction, the scale and nature of the reform programmeis unprecedented.

PASC’s principle remit is to look at government as a whole, at the quality of management and process in Whitehall.  This is critical to the success of government.  What exactly is being done to implement this reform?  What objectives are being set?  What organisational changes are being made?  How is the process being led?  How lessons learned are being shared across departments.  Is the civil service workforce engaged in the process of change?  What will be the outcome in say three years’ time?

The overall conclusion is stark.  Unless government can develop and implement a comprehensive plan for cross-departmental reform in Whitehall, the Government's wider ambitions for public service reform, the Big Society, localism and decentralisation will fail.  As our report points out, we know that the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton, and others at senior levels in the Government, are exasperated by lack of progress and are apparently appalled by the ‘custom and practice’ of Whitehall and by the deadweight of inherited policy, not least by the overbearing constraints imposed by the vast body of EU law and regulation and by the direct application of the Human Rights Act.  The report also highlights the lack of specialist expertise and other key skills, institutional inertia and complacency which justify the Prime Minister's complaint about "the enemies of enterprise" within Whitehall (which so enraged the Cabinet Secretary).

PASC recommends the Cabinet Office should take on a much stronger coordinating role and should provide vigorous leadership to ensure that every department of state is leading and implementing change effectively.  We call for a world class centre of Government headed by someone with the authority to insist on delivery across the Civil Service.  Government should produce a comprehensive change programme, articulating what it believes the Civil Service is for, how it must change and with a timetable of clear milestones.  Change must be driven: it will not just happen.  That is how large companies implement change, or change fails.

Many former Ministers have told us that they see reform as necessary and they too are frustrated by Civil Service inertia.  From the other side, we have learned that ministers have  often failed to understand what the Civil Service is for, what it should do and what it can be expected to deliver.  Ministers want greater specialism in the Civil Service, rather than intelligent generalism.  They want more risk-taking, rather than safe bureaucratic inertia.  They want more cross-departmental working, rather than silos and stovepipes. And they want more continuity in top posts, rather than the reshuffling which moved ten out of 16 permanent secretaries in the Coalition’s first 12 months.

Traditionally, the Civil Service has had three core capabilities: advice to Ministers on policy and legislation; management of public services; and, supervision of public bodies. The reform agenda demands a fourth capability: the ability to engage with voluntary and private sector organisations to contract and commission public services.  People in Whitehall with that capability could almost be counted on one hand.  A conscious development programme here is essential.  What concerns us is that in some cases, without a coherent plan,  Departments are not identifying the roles and capabilities required.  So savings programmes are throwing out the good with the bad.

We hoped for some detail in July’s Open Public Services White Paper, but there is nothing there.  So PASC has sounded the alarm, not least to get the attention of Ministers.  Our message to Francis Maude is that he must take a lead on the process of Civil Service reform – and he must have the authority from the Cabinet to take the lead -   or the Government’s reform programme will fail.  However, Francis told us that the last thing the government needs is a new plan or blueprint and that he prefers “doing stuff”.  But proper leadership and governance of the reform of Whitehall is the one thing that simply cannot be delegated to this system.  We emphasise that these reforms need clear political leadership.  Unless Ministers stress that structural reform is a priority, many civil servants will just keep their heads down until the latest speeches to Civil Service Live have faded away and then carry on as before. 

We have set out the key elements of a plan for Civil Service reform. It needs clear objectives, appropriate scope, buy-in from people at senior levels, central coordination and a clear timetable.  We have also set out six key principles of good governance and change management.

  1. Leadership is the first and most important principle of change management.
  2. Performance is affected by the development of new and relevant skill sets in government.
  3. Acccountability must be appropriate to this age of radical transfer of functions out of Whitehall, and we question the traditional model.
  4. Transparency is essential for accountability and measuring performance, and citizens must be able to use the data government is releasing.
  5. The overall plan must reflect coherence across Whitehall, and therefore be coordinated from the centre.
  6. And there must be a process of engagement with the entire workforce if they are to deliver reform.

Change was the watchword of David Cameron in opposition.  He must now galvanize Whitehall and empower his ministers to deliver the change he wants, or the Coalition will have failed to deliver some of its most crucial objectives.


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