Valuable to civil servants but a challenge to ministers: have Whitehall non-execs been a success?

Written by Robert Hazell on 19 January 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

The coalition government beefed up the role of departmental non-executives, and have encouraged talented people into the posts. But many gave found the roles frustrating and there is room to strengthen their contribution

The Constitution Unit has just completed the first major study of non-executive board members in Whitehall (commonly known as non-executive directors, or NEDs). We found that non-executives are high calibre, committed people, whose expertise is greatly valued by the civil service. But NEDs find the role frustrating, and feel they could be much more effective if the system only allowed.

Who the non-executives are

Non-executives were first introduced in the early 1990s. In 2010 the new Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude gave them a strong boost, announcing that departmental boards would be chaired by the secretary of state, with at least four NEDs, largely drawn from the commercial private sector. There are now around 80 NEDs in 20 departments.


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They are high calibre, mainly from business but also professional backgrounds, very senior in their own fields. They are not in it for the money, or to build a CV: their motivation is one of public service. They contribute a lot more time than they signed up for: on average 45 days a year.

What impact they have achieved

Most NEDs say they make their greatest contribution outside the board. This includes coaching and mentoring, advising on major projects, testing delivery chains. Senior officials greatly value their advice and expertise, the mentoring role, their willingness to take on additional tasks.

NEDs expressed less satisfaction with the central part of their role, as board members. Few Whitehall boards are said to be working well. Ministers fail to understand their purpose, dislike challenge, and find it hard to set priorities, especially if that involves dropping things to make way for new ones. Typical of NED responses was this terse comment: “Most helpful = support of the Perm Sec. Absent = input of the SoS”.

Strategic planning and delivery

NEDs easily find affinity with Permanent Secretaries, with shared interests in leadership, management and delivery. But the key relationship is for the lead NED to gain the trust and respect of ministers.  This takes time; and it is not helped by high ministerial turnover, as happened following the 2015 and 2017 elections, and the latest reshuffle, which saw five new secretaries of state.

The single departmental plan (SDP) is the vehicle to ensure realistic planning matched to resources. Framing and managing SDPs should oblige ministers to decide which projects to shed or downgrade. SDPs have improved, but with great variation between departments. The real test will be whether plans are used in-year to monitor and manage performance, or just go back on the shelf.

NEDs still find it difficult to challenge ministers’ wish to do everything, with consequential risks of overstretch. They could obtain greater leverage by encouraging the permanent secretary as accounting officer to seek ministerial directions before proceeding with programmes which are not feasible, or offer poor value for money. ‘You have to find a way to be more black and white about risks, not just the ordinary ‘nice, nice’, as one lead NED put it.

Strengthening the contribution of Non-Executives

A familiar refrain in our interviews was that the role of NEDs is too vague, and needs clarifying. But when we probed this, and asked whether clarification means codification, or more powers, we found no wish for NEDs to have more formal powers. They prefer soft power to hard power. 

The only powers available to NEDs are those of persuasion, and publicity.  Because of the crucial need to build relationships of trust with ministers and senior officials, they have understandably been reluctant to go public. The central concern is overload, now exacerbated by Brexit. But as Whitehall confronts the immense challenges of Brexit, non-executives may need to come out of the closet.  They do the civil service and themselves no favours if they remain too silent for too long.

The Constitution Unit’s report Critical Friends? The role of Non-Executives on Whitehall Boards can be found here

About the author

Robert Hazell is the founder of the Constitution Unit at UCL, where he is Professor of Government and the Constitution.  He worked for 15 years in the Home Office, from 1975 to 1989.

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