By Samera Owusu Tutu

02 Sep 2014

The new set of published perm secs' objectives seem much improved, but are they really what they claim to be? Report by Samera Owusu Tutu. Illustration by John Levers.

Across the globe, countries are improving transparency by publishing government data, but the UK continues to be a prime mover – and one of the jewels in its crown is the annual release of permanent secretary objectives. Three years’ worth of objectives are now in the public domain. But how much do they tell us about the performance and targets of our top civil servants? And do
they add much to the goals published in departmental business plans?

When the government launched this element of its transparency agenda, it said it had three main goals: to bridge the gap between citizens and state; to improve the setting of objectives by enabling people to comment on the existing ones, in turn improving the operation of government; and to make permanent secretaries more accountable to their ministers.

Publishing the objectives hasn’t been without its problems. Last year, the objectives were criticised as too complex, and involving too many  separate aims for each perm sec (see news). The previous year commentators suggested they were too vague, failing to set out details of operational plans and policies (see news).

Such criticisms are probably inevitable. As the trailblazer, the UK doesn’t have a manual on how to do this well — it is having to find its way by learning from its own mistakes. And whilst this year’s objectives seem to have improved in various ways – not least in emerging much more quickly than last year’s documents – commentators suggest that the process of learning from errors is not yet complete. Bridging the Gap Susannah Clements, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), gives a stark take on what these documents comprise: “Rather than being objectives, these are a compromise between a set of things that an individual has to demonstrate; a set of objectives for the department; an outline of government policy; and a PR exercise.”

If this is the case, the civil service previously failed on the last count. The first objectives, published for the period 2012-13, were an insight into the civil service’s esoteric nature – hard to find online, and even harder to decipher. Interested members of the public were expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of senior civil service personnel, as the objectives were published with the names of permanent secretaries and no indication of their job titles or departments. If anything, the presentation of the objectives on that occasion highlighted the distance between citizen and state. And there has been little improvement since: this year’s objectives were still presented in an arbitrary list in the bowels of the site.

Timeliness has also been a problem, with both previous sets of objectives published nine months into their 12-month period. Here things have improved, with the current objectives published in July – four months into the year.

The art of objective setting

In previous years, the objectives have also been criticised as too woolly, lacking measurable aims. The Chartered Management Institute believes that objectives should be ‘SMART’: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. And the new, simpler format of this year’s batch appears to weaken measurability: the ‘Performance measures’ and ‘Milestone’ columns have been replaced with one named  ‘How progress will be judged’, making this aspect of the document less explicit.

In fact, Clements argues that – despite its looser template – the government has this year made efforts to include more measures of success into this year’s aims. However, she says that it must go further to make its permanent secretary objectives really useful: “They’ve got timescales and numbers and quite specific objectives,” she says. “What they’re very clear on is what you’ve got to do. There is much less on how you’re going to do it.”

Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), echoes this sentiment: “I think the personal objectives of the permanent secretaries should be just as much about how they achieve their objectives as on the outcome,” he comments.

An opportunity for introspection

Jenkin also believes that the government has missed another opportunity to strengthen the cultural and staff engagement targets facing perm secs. “There should be far more emphasis on achieving positive engagement and on leadership in order to make departments more effective,” he says. “The employee engagement index should be the most important target. If you can’t engage your people, you can’t lead them. Simple as that!”

The Civil Service People Survey 2013 put the employee engagement index score across the civil service at 58%. According to a Kenexa High Performance Institute (KHPI) study, UK employees who consider their leaders trustworthy have employee engagement index scores of 82%. Yet of the 19 permanent secretary objectives documents published this year, only two set targets for employee engagement. Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, was tasked with improving her department’s employee engagement index by a minimum of four percentage points. And HMRC chief executive Lin Homer has an objective to “narrow the gap between HMRC’s employee engagement index score and the Civil Service benchmark” — HMRC was the worst scoring department in 2013, with 44%.

This isn’t enough, says Jenkin: “We know that effective collaboration, persuasion, sharing of common intent is the most effective way of leading people. And there should be far more emphasis — and a target — on achieving positive engagement, and positive employee engagement scores.” In the past, Jenkin was sceptical about the value of objectives that didn’t set out the details of plans and policies, but things have changed and he now values relationship-building over operational goals: “My thinking has moved on,” he comments. “I can see the value of setting out plans and policies, but there is precious little in these objectives about leading people, about improving relationships and trust – and therefore leadership and accountability.”

Levels of accountability

A key factor in SMART objectives is achievability. And a key factor in making objectives achievable is for them to be limited in number: if an individual has dozens of priorities, then the reality is that they have none at all.

Last year, perm secs’ number of objectives varied wildly – with Richard Heaton, permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, lumbered with 36 objectives compared to the average 18. According to the Institute for Government, the average number has fallen this year from 18 to nine, enabling top officials to focus on the tasks and aims considered most important. Here, it seems that government definitely has learned from past mistakes. Nonetheless, the scale of individual objectives is still daunting. For example, Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is tasked with increasing the participation of women in business, and reducing the gender pay gap. Are all of these permanent secretary objectives surmountable?

“The objectives are much more the objectives of the department than the individual,” Clements comments. “If you read them, it’s a fascinating insight into what different departments are trying to achieve this year. It gives you a huge insight into what the government’s priorities are – but not necessarily into what that individual is personally going to do this year.”

Clements believes the documents would be “more truthful” if they stated that they tasked permanent secretaries with delivering these objectives “on behalf of the department”. These aren’t really personal goals for perm secs, she feels: instead, they’re the departmental tasks for which perm secs are to be held accountable.

Jenkin believes they could also be more illuminating. “I mean, last year they really were just a list of what departments do — and they’re still somewhat like that,” he says. “It is difficult to see how these lists of tasks necessarily create stronger leadership or stronger accountability.”

Where’s the value added?

With three years of objectives in the public domain, it is now clear to everyone that the government has no intention of publishing its assessments of how perm secs have scored against their goals. “I’ve seen the objectives. I haven’t seen the assessment of the objectives,” Clement notes. “Surely the whole point of objectives is how well people are doing to achieve them and identifying the blockers.”

The lack of published results should not be a surprise: taking transparency to that kind of level would put much more pressure on the system and damage relationships across government, whilst producing debatable benefits. But there are plenty of ways in which the objectives could still be improved – in particular, by trying to ensure that these genuinely are personal objectives rather than a dressed-up version of departmental goals. Incompatible with the SMART objective model and a tint on transparency, this presentation of organisational objectives as resting fully with departmental chiefs weakens the power and value of the exercise — particularly as departmental goals are already publicly available.

Three years in, the permanent secretaries’ objectives are still not perfect. But nobody ever claimed they would be: indeed, the government was explicit in saying that publishing them would reveal their flaws – ultimately leading to these weaknesses being addressed. Most commentators agree that the objectives continue to improve; and as the UK government breaks new ground, that in itself represents something of an achievement. “As a series of personal objectives for an individual, they’re not all quite on the money. But there again, should they be?” Clements reflects. “I think it’s very easy to be critical, but very difficult to say how you could do it better.”

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