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Improving the performance of the Whitehall/Town Hall machine

BurbageCllr David Burbage, Leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, says removing Town Hall officials should be made easier

It’s the old story that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in.

Politicians are formally / properly / brutally (select your preferred adverb) held to account by the electorate every four or five years. Moreover, we are also held to account by the press and public, the blogosphere and the political opposition - all of the time.

Think about the following scenario – Party A fails to operate a successful Council, because although their hearts were in the right place, things just didn’t happen and there was underperformance. So Party B takes over that failing local authority by winning an election. . . but then has to deliver its programme through precisely the same team who let down Party A for all those years.

Eric Pickles’ announcement that it will become easier to remove senior town hall officials is to be welcomed. Under the current rules, it is virtually impossible to remove a top official who doesn’t want to move without incurring maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds expenditure either in pursuing a capability procedure or a mutually agreed compensation. Now, anyone wrongly defenestrated should be protected by the existing employment laws that apply to everyone else.

It’s also currently not possible for elected councillors to take any direct capability or disciplinary decisions against those below the second executive tier. This means Members, even the Leader, can only sort things out indirectly via the wisdom, judgement and action of the management team that were supposed to be in charge of a problem situation in the first place.

On a related topic, I welcome the announcement by Francis Maude that senior Whitehall officials will be given publicly available targets and priorities; this is also a move in the right direction. Huge amounts of money are spent by Government in various ways, and it is a standing joke that any official found wanting are promoted out of harm’s way before blame canbe attached to the lack of a successful outcome to matters under their control.

I remember opposing a project that was being promoted by a (now former) civil servant for various reasons. It was reported back to me stopping this project was unhelpful, because politicians just come and go, but the civil service has to keep going and deliver services regardless of whoever’s been elected or appointed ... something out of Yes Minister!

In local government, as in all enterprises private and public, there is inevitably going to be a wide variety of performance from employees. Many are fantastic, delivering great service and outcomes to the public. Yet some are just not competent, but continue in employment for years. The weakest 10% “on probation” approach suggested by Francis Maude should start to address this in Whitehall.

So, let’s develop our ambition for a “fleet of foot” civil service a bit further – by implementing a system which ties the appointments of senior officials to the electoral cycle.

This wouldn’t politicise the civil service – rather, it would just make it more responsive to work for the outcomes sought by whoever happens to be in charge, of whatever political colour.

And if there’s a change of power, the high performing folk will be retained, or promoted.

Anything else – well, the electorate have spoken.


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