Interview: Jonathan Rees

Written by Matt Ross on 8 February 2013 in Interview
Interview

After 35 years in Whitehall and five years leading the Government Equalities Office, Jonathan Rees is heading for the exit. Matt Ross learns of his worries about civil service capabilities, ministerial policies and endless reorganisations

On the morning of Civil Service World’s interview with Jonathan Rees, the director general of the Government Equalities Office (GEO), civil servants are discussing the latest attack on their reputation. “No, Minister: Whitehall in ‘worst’ crisis”, reads the front page of The Times. “Civil Service ‘outdated’ and ‘unfit for purpose’”. And with just a couple of weeks until he retires after 35 years on Whitehall, a demob-happy Rees isn’t in the mood to diplomatically sidestep the challenges raised by The Times’s four-page assault.

“There’s a need to look fundamentally at how the ministerial-civil service policy relationship works, and there are clearly tensions around accountability and delivery,” he says. “We need to look at how well the civil service makes policy, and some of the criticisms in the papers are probably fair: that we’re not flexible, we’re not quick enough… that there are too many letters with spelling mistakes”.

There are questions here too for politicians, he argues: “Whether we’ve got too many ministers: we have over 100, compared to the French and Germans who have 40. What the role of special advisers is: this government came in saying it wanted fewer, and it’s already got more”. But Rees’s main challenge is to his civil service colleagues: “The civil service should change; we should be much more radical,” he says, expressing his regret that sweeping job cuts have reduced the opportunities for people to gain experience outside government and in different departments. “We need to get it much more accepted that coming in for a period, moving out for a period, is a good thing to do; and that it’s normal to spend your career in lots of different departments,” he argues. “The fact is that our systems of managing skill and talent across the civil service are nowhere near strong enough.”

The cuts have also slowed progress on getting more women and minority groups into top civil service jobs and public appointments, says Rees – and here, the government has a duty to act. “I think a new capability programme and a new diversity strategy are really important going forward,” he says, pointing out that Whitehall’s diversity strategy hasn’t been updated since 2008. Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake “are concerned” about the issue, he acknowledges; but he suggests that they haven’t championed it as their predecessor Lord O’Donnell did. “He talked about it all the time. He was passionate; he was visible; he was out there,” says Rees. “I think perhaps we haven’t seen that same visibility in the same way.” (See news.)

Meanwhile, says Rees, the Cabinet Office took responsibility for improving diversity in public appointments from the GEO in 2010, and set a target that half of new appointees would be women. The fact that it still doesn’t have a strategy for achieving that goal is “a bit of a disappointment”, he says; the Cabinet Office “really does need to show how it’s going to deliver that target… I don’t think I’ve seen much evidence of them driving the agenda sufficiently forward.”

Joined-up criticisms
If there’s one over-arching criticism of our system of government that runs through our interview, though, it’s the failure to strengthen joined-up, collaborative working across Whitehall. Indeed, Rees argues that civil servants’ and ministers’ ability to align different departments’ policies has “actually got weaker in the last few years, rather than stronger”. Under the coalition government, “the way too many of our current collective clearance processes work is that as long as [another department’s policy] doesn’t directly affect what you’re doing, you can live with it; but that’s not this holy grail of joined-up government that’s been bedevilling most of us on big social issues for the last 20 years.”

Under the Labour government, Rees believes, shared departmental public service agreements (PSAs) gave small Whitehall players like the GEO a way to “engage directors and directors general in other departments with the range of issues that you need to tackle if you’re going to deal with something like the gender pay gap”. However, nowadays PSAs have been replaced by structural reform plans and business plans: these are important accountability mechanisms, he says, but “you need to think through how you’re going to deal with some of the bigger cross-cutting issues – and I don’t think they do at the moment”.

This need for cross-Whitehall collaboration is particularly evident in government’s use of consultations, argues Rees: too often, departments run separate consultation exercises on topics that “we think are different – but actually, to the world out there, they’re all the same broad issue”. Asked about the prime minister’s recent decision to abolish the minimum 12-week time limit for consultations, the GEO boss agrees that sometimes far shorter timescales are required: “It’s less about the time for consultation than the way that you’re doing it,” he says. “If you’ve properly engaged people before producing your policy proposals and you’re just saying: ‘Does this give effect to what we said?’, then two weeks isn’t unreasonable. If you’re coming out with a policy that you’ve had no discussions about, then actually 12 weeks probably isn’t sufficient. What’s more important is: are we talking to the right people, in the right way?”

Unfortunately, says Rees, “too many of our consultations across government are incomprehensible to the average policymaker, let alone the average person out there. The real debate is: we don’t do consultation well enough”. And sometimes, he hints, civil servants don’t consult at all when they really should do so: “If you were to look at the way we make decisions in the Budget, perhaps it would be better to consult on some of those decisions before we make them,” he says, perhaps with metaphorical pasty in hand. “Now sometimes in tax cases that’s not so easy; but as a general rule, the more we openly consult people the better.”

Asking the right question
Sometimes, says Rees, the government could avoid unnecessary controversy by simply being very clear about exactly what it’s consulting on. Asked about the decision to abolish employment tribunals’ power to make wider recommendations in discrimination cases – a decision taken despite a consultation in which 79 per cent of respondents opposed the idea – Rees replies that “consultations are not a bit like the X-Factor, where you just weigh the votes. They’re about whether arguments are being put forward which would stop us doing what we said we’re going to do – and in that case, there weren’t.” The policy’s opponents failed to provide evidence that abolishing the power would create significant harm, he says: “Therefore the government proceeded with its view that on principle it was probably better to go ahead with scrapping it.”

There were similar misconceptions around the consultation on same sex marriage, says Rees – and the “lesson from that is that you need to be absolutely clear up-front about what you’re consulting on: are you consulting on ‘how’ or are you consulting on ‘whether’?” That GEO consultation gathered nearly quarter of a million responses – four times as many as the second biggest ever response, which concerned High-Speed 2 – and “lots of people thought we were consulting on ‘whether’, but the document makes it perfectly clear that we’re consulting on how we do it”. In short, the government had already decided to proceed with its policy; the only question was how exactly to do so.
In the event, when the government set out its plans for same sex marriage, it was so eager to make clear that the Church of England wouldn’t be required to perform gay marriages, Rees suggests, that its language led people to believe that the church would be barred from ever doing so. It also upset the Bishop of Leicester, who complained about a lack of consultation.

In fact, Rees argues, while culture and equalities secretary Maria Miller did have to cancel a planned meeting with the bishop at short notice, the church had been consulted. “I think the question the church was more concerned about was some of the language that was used around making it illegal [for the church to hold same sex marriages],” he says. “What we have said is that the church doesn’t want to do same sex marriage and the law will protect that position.”

Ultimately, Rees explains, the government’s plans ensure that the church won’t be forced to change canon law to facilitate same sex marriages; but if the church does decide at some point to change its mind, it could amend canon law and start holding same sex marriages without the need for another act of Parliament. “The policy intent, which is to allow the church to do what it wants, was delivered,” he says. “But I accept it didn’t actually get presented or understood in the way we would have hoped.”

Answers about asking
Asked what he’s learned recently about how to run consultations well, Rees replies first that “the channel is really very important”. Some 85 per cent of those who responded online to the same sex marriage consultation supported the proposals, he points out, whilst 93 per cent of those responding by letter opposed them. This should ring alarm bells, he suggests, when the government is pushing for consultations to be ‘digital by default’: “We need to think really quite carefully about when digital is right and when you need a variety of channels to communicate with people,” he says. “Face to face still has its place.”

Officials also need to decide up front how they’ll deal with petitions, he says, and to think carefully about how to gather opinions. In the same sex marriage consultation the GEO accepted ‘free text’ comments on its website, and ended up reading hundreds of thousands of submissions – but only about 100 were “what I would call ‘policy’ responses; most of the others were views expressed by people who were passionate, but weren’t actually adding much to the policy debate”. Given the right software, says Rees, the GEO could have gathered, processed and considered the vast majority of people’s views without having to read every individual’s comments separately.

Rees has also been doing some serious thinking about equality impact assessments (EIAs) recently – particularly since the PM told the CBI conference in November that civil servants would “no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered”. In fact, Rees explains, EIAs have never been compulsory; they are simply one way of fulfilling the Public Sector Equality Duty – both the ‘general duty’, which requires public bodies to consider the needs of women and minority groups when designing policies and delivering services; and the ‘specific duties’, which require them to explain how they’ve done so. For the GEO chief, the important thing is not that public bodies carry out EIAs, but that they research how their policies are working out: what’s required is “much better evidence of what has happened on the ground from the decisions we’ve already taken before we start taking new policy decisions”.

The GEO is now overseeing a wholesale review of the Public Sector Equality Duty; and Rees concedes that the duty’s effects have sometimes been unnecessarily onerous. Most people accept that EIAs “haven’t always been done well; or at the right time, in the right depth, or on the right issues,” he says; whilst councils and delivery organisations often do them well, “they haven’t worked so well in policy spheres”. They can sometimes be done when there’s little chance of influencing decision-makers, he accepts; and in some matters, the focus should be on people’s views rather than their identities. But Rees’s main criticism of the current system is that EIAs haven’t strengthened cross-departmental working and evidence-gathering: currently, he says, “you’ve got a whole series of departments taking decisions in isolation from each other, and you don’t have a strong mechanism for evaluating what the impact of those decisions is on the ground”.

The way forward
So Rees doesn’t believe the current system is perfect; but he is plainly worried about the PM’s apparent presumption that, left to their own devices, public servants will consider equalities issues. “The second bit of the argument, which says you just have to rely on decent people doing a good job, is the one where people – including me – would have more concern,” he says. “If you don’t have some kind of a process that makes people think about the implications of policies for particular groups, then you have a problem.”

That process doesn’t have to be a legal duty, he explains: if we could be confident that board members would always ask how policy changes will affect minority groups, that would be fine – but we can’t. Asked whether the review might recommend the abolition of the specific duties – the requirement to demonstrate compliance – without removing the need to comply itself, Rees sounds doubtful. “That doesn’t deal with some of the issues. Do people understand the general duty? Are lawyers, equality and diversity professionals too risk-averse? Are ministers getting the right advice?”, he says; without the specific duties, the requirements of compliance would be far less clear.

At any rate, Rees says he’d be “surprised if there are legislative changes this side of an election”. The review, scheduled to report in April, must first answer two big questions: “Firstly, have we successfully got everyone who needs to be thinking about equality doing so? Answer: almost certainly not – so the duty is capable of improvement. Secondly, is there too much paperwork, too many EIAs, too many equality professionals? Answer: almost certainly yes. So the prize would be to come out with a system where you’ve got more people in decision-making thinking about equality before they take their decisions, with less paperwork surrounding the process. That’s what we hope to end up with.”

Busy enough yet?
As if all this wasn’t enough to keep the GEO busy, its staff have been planning yet another move across Whitehall – the sixth in six years, as Rees points out with some feeling, “and I don’t think it does anybody any good to have such frequent changes. It’s hugely disruptive and wastes a lot of top management time”.

This time the GEO is leaving the Home Office to join the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, whose secretary of state has been given the equalities brief. And Rees is plainly very frustrated that his team has lost the temporary stability that came with its three-year stint as an independent department: it would be perfectly possible to serve whichever minister held the equalities brief from a fixed position, he says, and “moving bits of machinery around isn’t a sensible way to do things. GEO staff are already on three different sets of terms and conditions, and in DCMS that’ll be a fourth. The whole thing’s mad when we’re doing basic policy work; there ought to be a better way of handling it, but I’ve been unable to persuade anybody of that”.

Soon the 100-strong team will be moving to the DCMS building, where they’re likely to sit awkwardly alongside DCMS’s pooled, project-based structure. It might be possible to pool the combined teams, says Rees, what if the GEO is moved again? “We and DCMS staff don’t want to end up in the position where somebody happens to be working on an equalities project and, wow, they’re suddenly moved off to justice or DWP”. Rees is clearly worried that, if Miller is moved to a different department, the GEO team might be uprooted once again to follow her. “It’s very debilitating for staff to constantly be moved around,” he says. It’s difficult enough handling the complexity of working with three different part-time ministers – each with different perspectives – based in three different departments.

Given all this, Rees is no doubt retiring with some tiny sense of relief. He’s done the job for five years, he says, and “the move to DCMS suggested to me it was the right time to go”. His next step will be to take a bit of time out, and think about what he wants to do next.

Alongside that relief will sit a fair chunk of satisfaction: Rees believes that, as far as equality and diversity issues go, within the last few years the UK government has “created and implemented the best legislative framework in the world”. He’s seen the Equality Act into law, along with legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of age: “That’s something that I wrote a report on 15 years ago, and wanted to stay to oversee,” he says. “Now it’s been introduced, I think it’s time for others to sort out things like equal marriage and the Public Sector Equality Duty” – and, presumably, the next pilgramage of the GEO as it continues its perennial circumnavigation of Whitehall.

Yes, Jonathan Rees seems really quite happy as we wrap up the interview and head out to get some pictures. “I’ve got potentially 10 years of working life left,” he says. “I’ve got an opportunity to do something different.”

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