By CivilServiceWorld

29 Jan 2014

The Public Administration Select Committee wants the creation of an independent commission into the civil service. The PM has so far given a firm ‘no’ – but its chair, Bernard Jenkin, won’t let up. Joshua Chambers meets him

It’s a bouncy and upbeat Bernard Jenkin who comes to collect CSW from Parliament’s Central Lobby. He’s had a frenetic weekend, he explains, heading a campaign of 92 MPs calling for Britain to be given back its right to veto new European Union laws.

The campaign has received a great deal of media attention, and it’s clearly caused a stir. As we stroll through the Palace of Westminster’s winding corridors and up into the vast atrium of Portcullis House, MPs keep dashing up to the chair of the Public Administration Select Committee. Some want to discuss developments, patting him on the back; Jenkin also quietly reassures a government minister, sadly just out of CSW’s earshot.

This instance seems to encapsulate Jenkin’s approach to politics, and to chairing a select committee. He’ll gather his evidence, set out a bold plan, cause controversy in Whitehall, then continually meet with interested parties to quietly discuss his ideas and plot the latest developments.

Even when we finally make it to the coffee shop where we conduct the interview, Jenkin is still regularly interrupted by the buzzing of his Blackberry – which he answers to make further arrangements for later in the day. Over a black Americano, he tells CSW his thoughts on the last four years of civil service reform, and his plans for the last full year of the Parliament.

A very convivial chairman

Since select committee chairs were first chosen by their fellow backbenchers in 2010, it’s often been observed that the committees have become far more independent, critical and proactive. This trend has caused tension between parliament and government, with permanent secretaries particularly unhappy at some of the grillings they have received from MPs – notably Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Jenkin’s Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) examines the quality of administration within the civil service, and the Tory MP has sought a more conciliatory style than other chairs, he explains: “I see one or two other committees specialise in being very prosecutorial and adversarial. First of all, that’s not really my style. Secondly, I question how much information you get out of witnesses if you’re attacking.” Instead, he says, he wants to ask more open questions, encouraging witnesses to speak more freely.

This different style is also, partly, a function of his committee’s role. The Public Accounts Committee exists to hold public bodies to account, and works closely with the National Audit Office. At PASC, though, “we’re doing a more exploratory, policymaking role,” he says. “Yes, we’re holding people to account, but we’re looking to the future, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned – or even regret – it’s where I have attacked too much, and sought joint exploration not enough.”

Broadly, Jenkin wants his committee to contribute to government by choosing inquiries where it can make a difference. “It’s about drawing on our own experience and knowledge to make really implementable recommendations,” he comments. He’s also keen to build strong, personal relationships with senior figures in Whitehall, because “the effectiveness of the committee depends upon relationships, and we need to build up trust and dialogue with the bodies we scrutinise.”

His committee wants members of the public to become more involved in scrutinising government using social media. He’s going to announce the ‘hashtag’ that people can use on Twitter to comment on hearings live, and to send their own questions for MPs to ask.

Ultimately, Jenkin judges an inquiry successful if the government agrees to a large number of its recommendations – though he thinks that sometimes government will park its recommendations, then announce them as its own ideas. For example, Jenkin says, PASC recommended the creation of a plan for reforming the civil service – something originally rejected by the government, but then announced less than 12 months later.

Jenkin’s grand plan

The committee’s latest big recommendation, repeatedly rebuffed by government, is for the establishment of a commission to map out the future of the civil service. Senior officials and the prime minister have rejected the idea – and no wonder, says Jenkin: “To recognise the need for change is very hard, and then to accept someone else’s idea of what you need to change is even harder,” he says. “This is why I believe so strongly a commission on the civil service is so necessary. It’s that kind of externally-moderated dialogue which Whitehall cannot provide for itself.”

Between the founding of the modern civil service by the Northcote-Trevelyan Act in 1853, and the Fulton Inquiry into the future of the civil service in 1965, there were eight royal commissions on the civil service to “refresh and update on a regular basis how Whitehall is operating,” Jenkin notes. “The civil service and Whitehall have not enjoyed that kind of dialogue for nearly 50 years with an outside body appointed for the purpose.”

He accepts that allowing an independent commission to “publicly intrude into what is a fundamentally private relationship between ministers and their officials is a very difficult thing to deal with,” but says that the backing of a number of think tanks and Whitehall observers shows the strength of opinion on the subject (see news, p3).

The civil service’s current managerial and political leaders would rather enact existing plans for a limited set of reforms than pause for a potentially lengthy inquiry. However, Jenkin argues that the current plans aren’t sufficient to create substantial reform, because they don’t seek to change attitudes and behaviours. “You need to offer a vision of what you’re seeking to achieve,” he says, and “there is virtually nothing about attitudes and behaviour changing in the Civil Service Reform Plan or the One Year On update.”

Instead, the reform plan seeks to change functions and structures, Jenkin says, “and all the evidence we’ve received is that changing structures and functions, or even changing people at the top, does not itself change the organisation.” Instead, a commission would ask “what we want it to feel like being part of the civil service, being asked to be accountable. We want these to be positive and good feelings, and yet so much of what happens around Whitehall is very political – with a small ‘p’ – and very uncollaborative.” He says engagement scores in the annual Civil Service People Survey show that the civil service is not currently world class. Indeed, “it’s difficult to see how some departments and agencies even function.”

Jenkin acknowledges that the leaders of the civil service and “their political masters” are concerned about being diverted from implemented existing reform plans, but argues that “the last year of a Parliament is usually rather a slack time.” He adds: “I’m already hearing how civil servants are becoming distracted by the possibility of a change in government in 2015, and the legislative burden is usually much lighter [in the last full year].” This, he says, would make 2014 a good year to reflect, before setting out a comprehensive vision that could be adopted by any government in 2015.

Who’s with him?

Briefly, Jenkin sets out the key questions his inquiry would ask, its scope, and its membership. The commission would ask: “Why do ministers feel they’ve been blocked and frustrated by the system? Why do senior officials also feel less empowered than they did twenty years ago? Why is there so much churn at the top of the civil service? Do we have the necessary skills and capabilities in Whitehall? Why have these problems built up? And what needs to be done to address them?”

Pay and other rewards would be an important part of this commission’s work, Jenkin says: “In Australia, France, they pay their senior officials very much more than we pay in this country; and if we are to recruit and retain the long-term and committed senior leadership the civil service needs into the decades ahead, I can’t see how we’ll avoid the issue of pay.”

The commission would work in three phases, he explains. The first would explore, analyse and then promote an agreed analysis of what is wrong in Whitehall, and how these problems have come about. The second phase would consider what changes are required and how to implement them; and third would be a consideration of structural changes to improve relationships between departments and the centre.

The membership of the commission should be limited: he envisages between six and 11 members. “It should be chaired by someone who knows Whitehall, but is not of Whitehall – and that would not be a former civil servant or politician,” he says. That means he wouldn’t chair it, of course. Instead, it should be someone like a retired high court judge or a senior business leader, “to give this body real authority.” The commission’s members would include Jenkin, a couple of senior figures from the main political parties, “maybe even one from the Liberal Democrats as well,” a couple of “Whitehall warriors”, and a few people from outside government such as academics and people in business.

What’s up with Whitehall?

An inquiry would take a long view – but what’s changed in Whitehall over the past four years? One important improvement, he says, has been the development of greater digital capability. Further, “in parts of the civil service, there is a real understanding of how to lead innovation, and we saw that at the Civil Service Awards.”

However, not everything has improved. The problems experienced on the Universal Credit programme highlight accountability problems within the civil service, he says: “There is confusion about who is accountable for what, particularly on cross-departmental programmes.” In that case, he says, “Treasury wanted [its own agency] HMRC to be responsible, and DWP wanted to be responsible themselves”.

That confusion over accountability stretches right into the heart of government, he thinks, with an awkward job split between head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake and cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood: “They have done their best to work closely together but, inevitably, it must have led to a certain amount of left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.” Jenkin says that former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell “no longer thinks [the job split is] viable” – though that is not clear from his evidence to the inquiry.

PASC was told by another former cabinet secretary, Lord Butler, that the cabinet secretary position will always be top dog, Jenkin says, “so trying to create parity of esteem between these two posts is probably not the right model. The head of the civil service might well be separate from cabinet secretary, but probably should report to the cabinet secretary.” The position of civil service chief should also be full-time, he believes.

The Cabinet Office as a whole is too weak, Jenkin thinks. “That’s one of the frustrations of being a minister in that department: you’re at the centre of everything, but the power rests with the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the great departments of state. That is the conundrum that needs to be resolved as we look at the future of Whitehall.”

The MoD rocks

Jenkin also thinks the Ministry of Defence isn’t given sufficient status within Whitehall. “Defence is a far more complex business than running military operations and delivering procurement projects,” he says, because it requires “the kind of strategic imagination that the rest of Whitehall lacks.” But the MoD is not included enough in key decisions. For example, with Syria, “I think the MoD was hardly involved in that decision-making.” Indeed, across the board he thinks Downing Street turns too readily to political advisers rather than permanent secretaries.

Another topic in which Jenkin takes a keen interest is that of government statistics: PASC’s inquiry into the quality of crime data has already prompted the UK Statistics Authority to downgrade its assessment of police stats. And Jenkin warns that much of Whitehall has become too defensive over publishing data, its commitment to transparency weakening fast. It was willing to release information that didn’t relate to the current administration, he says, but has now become less transparent – for example, by reducing the amount of information published in quarterly data summaries. “It was easier for ministers to publish information about the previous administration that was embarrassing, and that gets harder as time goes on,” he says. Jenkin would like to see more public contracts published, but the government is resisting that: he believes that “departments are too worried to show how much money private contracts are making out of public services.”

A final area that the committee is pursuing concerns how public services handle complaints. “Complaints can and should be the best strategic intelligence for what’s going wrong in your organisation and what’s improved, and therefore we want more complaints,” Jenkin says. But “Whitehall is adverse to complaints, when it should be saying: ‘How do we get more complaints so we know what’s going on?’”

This doesn’t, of course, mean that public service users should have more need to complain; instead, they should have more faith that complaining will achieve something. Civil servants should “give people a sense it’s worth complaining, and that complaining will change outcomes.” Currently, complaints systems are too “process-driven” and bureaucratic, he believes.

The next inquiry for PASC will be on skills and capabilities, Jenkin says. From private conversations with senior figures, he knows an inquiry into this area would be welcome. “It’ll be looking at how we educate the civil service; the role of Civil Service Learning; and what we can do to develop, retain, upskill and recruit from outside the kind of specialist skills that everyone agrees the civil service needs more of: implementation, procurement, IT and commercial skills.”

And what of his own future? Does he plan to stand again for chairman of the committee? “In the next parliament, I very much hope I continue serving as chairman of this committee – but I am answerable to the House,” he says.

Jenkin’s phone has barely stopped ringing throughout the interview: he certainly has a knack of picking topics that generate interest, though government hasn’t taken to his ideas on the EU or his plan for a commission. That doesn’t peturb him, though, and he’ll continue pressing on both fronts in his inimitable manner. For as long as he’s chair of PASC, Jenkin will be a very convivial critic of the problems he perceives in Whitehall.

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