In 2018, Jonathan Slater became the first perm sec to request a ministerial direction on the grounds of feasibility.
At the time, CSW wondered if the then-DfE permanent secretary might be starting a quiet revolution across Whitehall by helping to shift the political culture so that feasibility and delivery are considered earlier in the policymaking process.
Since then, just one direction has included feasibility among its grounds but Slater has once again got us thinking about accountability and decision making in government. Having begun his career in local government, Slater is more familiar with discussing his advice in the open than those who have only worked in the civil service.
And his recent intervention in the RAAC crisis – which saw hundreds of schools close days before a new term because of concerns about dangerous concrete – makes a good deal of sense in light of his personal experiences of accountability. There are, of course, questions about whether former officials should be taking open accountability into their own hands, as Dave Penman explores in his column for us.
By choosing, in early September, to publicly share the historic advice his department gave ministers about school concrete, Slater also put the spotlight on how decisions are made in government, particularly during spending reviews. He said the education department had bid – and expected – to see a rise in the yearly target for addressing RAAC in schools at the 2021 Spending Review. Instead, the target was cut.
This gives some insight into the bruising process of spending review bidding, but what Slater could not explain was why this decision was taken – the trade-offs and political considerations that shaped the spending round. Nevertheless, he highlighted how the Treasury’s role in setting departmental targets can cause challenges.
In the latest issue of our magazine, ex-senior civil servant Simon Sharpe highlights a similar challenge in relation to climate change – another problem which requires near-term investment to tackle long term-damage. Governments notoriously tilt towards the near term, and in the UK we are particularly bad at investing in longer-term and capital projects, as highlighted by comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies, who wrote for The Times that the RAAC crisis reveals the government’s “sticking-plaster” approach to capital investments.
It also highlights the importance of how risk is discussed. The crisis unfolded this summer not because schools or government suddenly became aware of the risks of RAAC, but rather because DfE changed the way it assessed those risks and, therefore, the guidance it issued to schools on the topic.
It’s perfectly reasonable to change guidance when new information comes to light, but the shift did lead CSW to reflect on the way that risk is communicated to ministers, particularly when they face decisions which balance short and long-term factors.
Sharpe suggests that climate policy is suboptimal in part because civil servants assess the risk and advise on “likely scenarios”, rather than giving threat-based advice which looks at worst-case scenarios, as is more common in fields like counter-terrorism. One wonders if threat-based advice on RAAC might have led ministers to think differently about the investment case for addressing it.
This is not to blame the problem of short-termist or bad decisions in government on poor civil service advice. In the end, of course, decisions lie with ministers.
To govern, as the adage has it, is to choose. But to govern is also to lead – to set out a vision of the future and take people with you to achieve it. Until we see stronger leadership from politicians, it’s hard to see how any number of interventions from former perm secs and current auditors could change the political culture which sees underinvestment in the fabric of our public sphere as a reasonable price to pay for short-term savings and electoral survival.