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Nick Herbert MP: The civil service reform we need

Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 20.47.42Would you take a job where you are accountable for everything, but you cannot appoint or remove your staff, who are accountable for nothing?  Of course not.  Yet that is exactly what we ask ministers to do.  One of the first things you discover as a minister is that civil servants, even those in your own private office, don’t actually work for you.  And since officials can’t be held to account for departmental failings, and ministers can’t meaningfully be held responsible for every detail, the reality is that no-one is accountable at all.

No doubt the public believe that a minister has great power, and of course in some respects they do.  Most of the time, however, I exercised it by making requests to officials in the apologetic manner of Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson: “Would you mind awfully ...?”  Where officials were good, they were very good indeed.  The problem was that where performance was poor - ministerial correspondence in the Home Office was particularly dire - it was extraordinarily difficult to effect change.

Illiterate letters are the least of a government’s problems.  As Richard Bacon MP and Chris Hope have written ahead of their book to be published on Tuesday, the mismanagement of major programmes such as the now-abandoned NHS IT project or the West Coast Mainline franchise has been ruinously expensive.  Yet “the public very rarely sees anyone in Whitehall being held to account for mistakes.  This has created what we have called ‘Teflon civil servants’ – those officials whose career progress appears unaffected by spending cock-ups which have cost taxpayers millions or even billions.”

Today, the IPPR publishes a report with recommendations that would be an important step towards addressing these problems and improving the effectiveness and accountability of government.  They propose that the Prime Minister should have the power to appoint Permanent Secretaries, albeit from a list of appointable candidates.  This is not an arbitrary recommendation but is based on a comparative study with other countries which finds that the UK is “highly restrictive in terms of the limited powers ministers have to make appointments.”  Similar systems to our own, such as in Canada and Australia, allow greater ministerial say, yet “there is little evidence of partisan politicisation taking place in either of these countries.”  Both rate more highly than the UK in the World Bank Indicator of Government Effectiveness.

The ex-mandarins and other worthies who comprise the Civil Service Commission are fighting a spirited rearguard action against such dangerous colonial ideas, but they must know that they are losing the battle.  Even the august Institute for Government has echoed the call for Hacker to have the final say over the appointment of Sir Humphrey.  As the IfG notes, this is effectively the system operated for hundreds of other important public appointments.  Would we be happy if there was no ministerial approval of the chairmanship of the BBC?

Together with proposals for strengthening the role of the Head of the Civil Service - who should clearly not be part-time - introducing fixed term contracts for permanent secretaries and increasing the accountability of operational leaders, these proposals seem less revolutionary than common sensical.

The second key IPPR recommendation is even more significant: Secretaries of State should have an extended office of ministerial staff that they personally appoint and who work directly on their behalf in the department.  These staff should comprise a mixture of officials, external experts, and political advisers.

As a minister in charge of a major reform programme, I frequently felt less supported than I had been in opposition, when I had only the tiniest team of advisers and researchers.  Private offices are busy and committed, handling vast amounts of paper and diaries.  I got on well with my dedicated and loyal private secretaries.  But as the report notes, these offices are relatively underpowered.  What I needed was people with experience and policy expertise to help me drive the agenda and interrogate proposals.

I didn’t want party-political advisers, and we must move away from the idea that all that’s needed is simply more SPADS.  The IPPR report explicitly does not recommend a ministerial ‘Cabinet’ system of exclusively political appointees.  But, again, it does point out that Australia and Canada both have hundreds of ministerial advisers compared to the 80 or so allowed under our current arbitrary limit.  Visiting ministers from other countries are often astonished by the lack of personal support for their British colleagues.

The civil service effectively exercises a monopoly over policy advice.  But when government has become ever bigger and more complex, what’s needed is a system which sees a greater interchange of the brightest and best between Whitehall and the outside world.  Commercial acumen and the experience of running organisations are found outside Whitehall, not within.

Enabling able and experienced people to contribute to the running of government will require careful safeguards to guard against improper commercial influence and partisan activity.  But the time has come to challenge the reflex claim that a wholly impartial civil service matters above all else.  What the public want is effective government.

It is significant that the IPPR report has been published at all, and that the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, has welcomed it.  His recent speech to Policy Exchange gave the clearest indication that the Government intends to take the agenda of greater Whitehall accountability and support for ministers forward.  The report itself shows the benefits of reform: going outside the civil service for policy advice has produced suggestions for more effective government that simply wouldn't have come from within.  That ability to commission external advice was a key element of Maude’s Civil Service Reform Plan, published a year ago.

The lazy portrayal of the Government’s plans is that they are an an attack on the civil service.  That is how the opponents of change always seek to demonise public sector reforms.  The truth is that the best civil servants have a huge amount to gain from plans which will improve accountability and performance.

There’s been a great deal of focus on interesting new political appointments to generate policy, but delivery matters at least as much.  Governments are judged on how well they govern.  That is why ensuring that ministers have the capacity to deliver on their promises and that departments perform properly should be a priority.

The Cabinet Office has quietly been at the vanguard of highly effective government reforms.  Its Efficiency and Reform Group has achieved nearly £20 billion of savings already.  The civil service will be 25 per cent smaller by 2015 and there will be a third fewer quangos.  The transparency agenda is opening up government data, a far more significant step forward for accountability than its ugly sister of freedom of information.  Now is the time to go further.

The IPPR report lists the factors driving the need for reform, including the 24/7 media, rising public expectations of government, and complex policy challenges which need joined-up policy responses.  All of this requires government which is leaner, more capable and more responsive.  We won’t get that unless it is properly accountable and ministers are equipped to deliver.


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