Bernard Jenkin: now is the time to improve government – ministers and all
PACAC chair tells CSW it is a promising moment for civil service reform, but ministers must play their part too
After nearly seven years at the helm of the public administration committee, Bernard Jenkin has been in his job longer than any currently serving permanent secretary or minister.
He watched as the civil service grappled with the ambitious reform agenda, budget cuts and workforce reductions of the coalition government. He watched as the innovations (as he puts it) of the Francis Maude era foundered, failed or flourished; exploring the substance and success of their innovations through myriad evidence sessions and reports. He is watching as the civil service prepares itself to deliver Brexit, and as new reform programmes take their course.
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Having observed all of this, Jenkin thinks now is the time to secure much-needed change not just to the organisations or capabilities of the civil service, but to its culture and the relationship at the very heart of government: between officials, and the ministers they serve.
He notes firstly that we may be in for a period of relatively stable government – that is, there is a low risk that another party will come to power and undo the Tory government’s work on civil service reform. Beyond this, he believes officials are receptive to change, and there is strong political support for the institution of the civil service.
Finally there is a recognition that reform must happen quickly. “There is a sensitivity that the civil service is very heavily loaded with tasks; that there is a need to improve its effectiveness, and dispense with the politicking with a small p that inhibits cross departmental working, flexibility and agility in the civil service. There is an appetite [for reform]; this may be a very propitious time to get a very substantial change,” he tells CSW.
Jenkin hopes this change will be strongly influenced by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (to give it its full name) and its ongoing inquiry into the work of the civil service. He tells CSW that the inquiry is shaping up to be a truly fundamental review of the way government works because it is looking not just at civil servants, but at that central relationship with ministers.
It is rare for government to allow scrutiny of this relationship. The 1968 Fulton report – commissioned by Harold Wilson to examining the structure, recruitment and management of the civil service – was not allowed to look at this relationship, but PACAC is now doing so “with the full co-operation of ministers and civil servants”, says Jenkin.
As well as the usual public evidence sessions and written submissions, PACAC has commissioned a series of anonymous interviews with officials and ministers as well with former officials, ministers and special advisors, conducted by academics from Henley Business School. This work will be gathering data on themes which PACAC has considered in previous reports such as how trust is generated or eroded in organisations. The aim, Jenkin says, is to find out what people really think about the organisations they work for.
The early indications from these interviews, Jenkin says, is that there is uncertainty about how the relationships between senior officials and ministers should work and that spads are seen as “a lifeline, a link between the ministers and officials which otherwise isn’t working very well.”
“There is a sensitivity that the civil service is very heavily loaded with tasks; that there is a need to improve its effectiveness, and dispense with the politicking with a small p that inhibits cross departmental working, flexibility and agility in the civil service. There is an appetite [for reform]; this may be a very propitious time to get a very substantial change."
This sense of a relationship in breakdown is echoed in evidence submitted by former first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington. The former Department for Education and Home Office permanent secretary wrote: “I am concerned at what I see as a slow deterioration over time in the trust between ministers and civil servants: with more willingness from ministers to criticise civil servants in public; more leaks from within the civil service; a greater tendency to hold civil servants at arm’s length and not to form with them the close partnership, on which effective government relies.”
Normington proposed a “new compact” between the government and civil service, drawn up with input from MPs of all parties, and bringing together the basic principles of partnership between ministers, officials and spads. This would act as a public demonstration of a shared commitment to the “enduring values of British government,” he said.
Another finding of the Henley Business School team – which is lead by PACAC advisor and professor of governance and leadership Andrew Kakabadse – is that the variable quality of leadership from ministers puts a big strain on the civil service.
“The constant unknown quantity when a new minister walks into the department; this is creates enormous difficulties,” says Jenkin. “Ministers have no training; each minister brings in their own idea of what it is to be a minister; they come in with very variable capabilities, variable degrees of knowledge and the civil service has to cope with that. That's a big challenge.”
That the committee recognises the need to consider ministerial as well as civil service capabilities will be welcomed by many. Among them, former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, who told PACAC at their first evidence session for this inquiry that ministers must come under scrutiny too.
“I don’t accept that if you’re really interested in the quality of government, you just say: ‘Hey, that’s the way ministers are’,” said O’Donnell. “Surely you say, let’s train them, let’s appraise them.”
Whether the final report will include such recommendations remains to be seen, but Jenkin also wants ministers to play another role in improving the way government works: to engage with, and help drive, the reform agenda.
This topic was bone of polite contention when PACAC took evidence from Sir Robert Devereux, Chris Wormald and Stephen Lovegrove earlier this year. Jenkin asked the perm secs when the newly launched leadership academy had last been discussed in cabinet. The answer was probably never, since it is a civil service project.
Jenkin suggested the academy would struggle to have any impact without political leadership, asking: “Isn’t this one of the reasons why civil service reform does not have the traction that we would like it to have, because there is not even an expectation from senior officials that ministers should be engaged in this?”
While the perm secs agreed that it would be helpful to garner support for some initiatives if they were seen as ministerial priorities, Devereux challenged the idea that it is a prerequisite for meaningful reform. “You are providing a line that basically civil servants have to wait to be told and asked by ministers, otherwise they will not take it seriously,” he said. “I think that is to diminish the sense in which we regard ourselves as leaders.”
Speaking to CSW, Jenkin said the fact officials did not know how many ministers were aware of work to improve leadership capabilities illustrated there is no clear stewardship of the system, and no clarity on who is responsible for its wellbeing.
“It underlines the need for a proper engagement between ministers and civil service about how the civil service is going to be changed; it can't just be left to one minister. The prime minister and the whole cabinet have got to sign up to what change is required they've got to decide and approve of the change and help drive it.”
Civil service leaders must also play their part, of course. In this regard, Jenkin seems confident officials are open to change. As evidence, he points to the enthusiastic response of cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood and civil service chief executive John Manzoni when PACAC and Henley Business School proposed carrying out the anonymous interviews to inform the report.
“I think there is a deeper understanding now of how culture is an issue in the civil service,” he says. “By that we mean the attitudes people adopt, that are seen to be approved of and therefore promoted; and the consequent behaviours that people show which is accepted.
“Ministers have no training; each minister brings in their own idea of what it is to be a minister; they come in with very variable capabilities, variable degrees of knowledge and the civil service has to cope with that. That's a big challenge.”
While the report will no doubt include specific proposals on capabilities or institutions, Jenkin says the committee always tries to return to these more difficult questions around culture and relationships. Things that are “hard to surface” but fundamental to a successful organisation.
Over his seven years heading up PACAC Jenkin has never been a showy chair. He is unfailingly polite to his witnesses, and believes that effective scrutiny and influence does not flow merely from holding hearings and publishing reports.
“One of the things I've discovered is the reports we actually produce are quite a small part of our influence,” he says. A report shows the evidence which has informed a committee’s recommendations, but it is often the act of starting that inquiry and taking evidence which produces the real changes.
“I think a lot of people think that being in a select committee is about asking questions in public; being seen to ask your questions,” says Jenkin, but his philosophy is to build support and help change the way people think rather than grandstand (though he deliberately rejects the word when CSW interjects it during our discussion). This is evident in the enthusiasm he shows for the private seminars which PACAC has begun to hold with experts and officials. “In some ways those are even more influential [than public sessions],” Jenkin says. “People go away challenged; provoked into their own thoughts about how things should be."
- PACAC’s inquiry into the work of the civil service is still ongoing, and you can submit evidence through the inquiry’s home page.
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