Jenkin: beef up civil service non-execs to let them do their jobs properly

Written by Matt Foster on 5 May 2016 in News

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin says legislation may be needed to make non-executive directors brought into government feel less disposable

Whitehall's non-executive directors should have more job security if they are to support departments properly and avoid being seen as mere "shadow directors", committee chair Bernard Jenkin has said.

During the last parliament, the coalition government significantly expanded the role that non-execs (NEDs) – drawn largely from the private sector – play on departmental boards, as part of efforts to broaden the outside experience available to the civil service and sharpen scrutiny.

According the latest figures, there are now more than 60 non-execs across 17 central government departments, with 34% drawn from the professional services sector (which includes law, academia and health), 27% from finance, and 19% from the technology, media and creative industries. Six percent are drawn from the government or not-for-profit sectors. 

Michael Gove: Non-execs not there to stop "misbehaving" ministers
MoJ appoints new team of non-executives following June shake-up
Civil service chief John Manzoni: Whitehall's treatment of whistleblowers is getting better

But Jenkin, who chairs parliament's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – which scrutinises the work of the civil service – has said it is "hard to measure" how effective NEDs have been, and warned that their ability to do their job properly "almost certainly differs widely between departments".

Writing in the latest PF Perspectives report published by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), Jenkin said NEDs had contributed to some "promising" developments, including helping to mentor senior officials who are on the path to becoming permanent secretaries.

And he said they had "stepped forward to assist departments in crisis", pointing to the role played by Ministry of Justice non-exec Tim Breedon, who reviewed the MoJ's contract management function in the wake of the offender tagging controversy.

However, Jenkin highlighted justice secretary Michael Gove's decision in July of last year to oversee a clear-out of the NEDs he had inherited from his predecessor Chris Grayling and bring in several from his time at the Department for Education.

One of those who left the MoJ when Gove took over was Dame Sue Street, who subsequently took to the airwaves to complain that the move risked "a discontinuity" in audit and oversight of the department, and was "not in the spirit of good governance".

Gove meanwhile told MPs that NEDs were not there to admonish ministers "when they are misbehaving", and said he had brought in a fresh team "to help the ministers, to help the civil servants, to provide leadership and direction to our reform programme".

But Jenkin has argued that NEDs need to feel more "secure in their posts" if they are to provide the right level of challenge and support to departments – as well as to ministers.

"After the general election in 2015, it was troubling to see the Ministry of Justice lose of all its NEDS in July. This meant there was no continuity in any of the important board commitees. It also sends a signal to the rest of Whitehall that non-executives can be easily dismissed."

The PACAC chair also questioned whether the role of NEDs may need to be enshrined in law to help provide clarity over their roles.

"Hopefully in future, select committee chairs will not be spending so much time reminding the civil service to enact these basic governance structures," he added.

"The question remains, though, whether Whitehall NEDs should be put on a statutory footing, and given fiduciary duties – rather than remain the mere shadow directors that they are today."

Writing in the same CIPFA paper, Emran Mian, a former civil servant who helped to bring in the system of departmental boards under the coalition and who now leads the Social Market Foundation think tank, said the role of a NEDs in central government was "highly complex" and "very different" from their equivalents in the private sector, with their potentially yet to be fully realised.

But he said civil servants were "increasingly focused on working with and learning from NEDs", and stressed the positive role that they could play in governance and oversight.

"The complexity of what central government does it not going to ease up; and the accountability, political and otherwise, that the members of the executive experience for managing this level of complexity should not diminish either – it is essential to our system of government," he added.

"But this opens up a very specific role for NEDs too. Precisely because they are not in the line of fire in the way that executives are, they can sometimes explore ways of managing complexity and propose solutions that the executives cannot."

Speaking at the end of last year, civil service chief execuitve John Manzoni said the Cabinet Office was looking to bring in a new, civil service-wide induction process for non-execs in a bid to provide a more "consistent approach across government"


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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Peter Swabey - ... (not verified)

Submitted on 5 May, 2016 - 14:00
Mr Jenkin is absolutely right - if the role of the departmental NED is to hold Ministers and civil servants to account, they do need appropriate induction, training and a degree of security of tenure. Emran Mian is quoted as observing that the role of a NEDs in central government is "very different" from their equivalents in the private sector, but it is not really clear how this difference is necessary or appropriate. Without a clear role, this is how we will all tend to see them - with the Secretary of State as Chairman - and it is certainly the case that in different private sector companies the board is more or less effective. An independent board evaluation carried out by an experienced professional is usually a good way of establishing where on the spectrum of effectiveness a board falls. Mr Jenkin goes on to give some examples of where a NED has been particularly effective. His comments on their ability to "explore ways of managing complexity and propose solutions that the executives cannot" again reflects the role of an NED in the private sector. The introduction of proper induction for NEDs will be a great step forward, but perhaps a more immediate solution would be to provide them with proper support. In the corporate world, this comes from the company secretary; in the other sectors with whom we deal it comes from governance professionals with a variety of job titles, but the central point is that the NEDs have professional support from a senior and experienced individual. Support of this kind should be provided for all civil service boards in order that the NEDs can deliver best value.

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