By Matt Ross

23 Sep 2014

Helen Edwards left a career in frontline social work and charity management for a job on Whitehall; now she's the DCLG's deputy permanent secretary. She tells Matt Ross about pursuing change in service delivery, councils, and her own department. Photo by Mark Weeks

In the late 1970s, Helen Edwards was working as a social worker. “I remember picking up case files which were literally eight inches thick, and knowing that I would be the latest in a long line of social workers who’d tried to do something about this family,” she recalls. “No-one had succeeded, and I think it’s partly because you have to take a rounded look. You can’t just look from a social services perspective: you have to look in terms of schools, kids getting into trouble, adults getting into work.” When public services take that holistic, joined-up approach, she believes, “the benefits are multi-faceted”: many parts of government see falls in workload and service costs, meaning that departments’ “interests come together, and we can see that it’s better to work across boundaries than separately.”

These days, Edwards views the world from the other end of the telescope. As the deputy permanent secretary and director general for localism at the Department for Communities and Local Government – the remit of which includes the Troubled Families initiative: a payment-by-results (PBR) scheme that incentivises councils to hire key workers to “corral services, so it’s not for the family to deal separately with the housing, social services, schools or whoever,” she explains.

It was the opportunity to improve flawed public service systems that first tempted Edwards into the civil service, following a 25-year career working on child protection and criminal justice issues for local authorities and charities – including a five-year stint leading NACRO, the crime reduction charity and service provider. On joining the Home Office in 2002, she remembers, she had a lot to learn.

She started by picking up the civil service jargon: “The only time I’d heard reference to a ‘submission’ was to do with wrestling,” she recalls with a grin. But there were bigger cultural issues, too: “I remember being asked in 2002 to give a presentation to the Wednesday morning meeting of permanent secretaries. I was the only woman in the room, and apart from one person everyone was white,” she says. “I’d come from a sector where there are lots of women leaders, and lots of black and minority ethnic leaders as well, so it was quite striking.”

Once she’d settled in, though, she found her council and charity skills invaluable in Whitehall. Experience of working with offenders, for example, “helps to keep your feet on the ground, and means that when you’re looking at policy you’re very, very conscious of the delivery aspects: of the fact that it’s got to work.” She also brought with her management and finance skills: in the voluntary sector, she points out, “you have to run a fairly hard-nosed business, because if you can’t balance the books you go under.” These days, she keeps those skills fresh by working as a non-executive director on the board of a mental health foundation trust. “It’s such a good corrective when you’re thinking of high-level policy,” she comments; one that keeps her focused on whether it will have “an impact on the ground and on people’s lives.”

After working on communities policy at the Home Office, Edwards became chief executive of the National Offender Management Service in 2006, then worked in senior management and justice policy roles back on Marsham Street until she joined the communities department in May 2013. With Kerslake already busy with his Cabinet Office role, she took on “a lot of the day-to-day stuff that a perm sec would normally do – chairing meetings, approving finance, decision-making.” And Sir Bob, she adds, was careful to give her some space. “He said when I started: ‘I want you to make the decisions, and even if I would have made a different decision, I won’t interfere; I won’t try to second guess you’,” she recalls. “I don’t know how many times he’s had to suck his teeth! But he hasn’t interfered: he’s given me plenty of freedom to get on and do things the way I think is best, and to use my judgement.”

Edwards is keen for councils and Whitehall to learn from the Troubled Families programme and its use of for payment-by-results, which can have its pitfalls as well as strengths. When it works, it focuses people on “the outcomes you want to achieve,” Edwards explains, “freeing people to do what they think is right to achieve that outcome.” But if too much of the project’s funding is attached to outcomes, contractors can be deterred by the difficulty of calculating risk or penalised when environmental factors affect their success rate: “Setting them up so you get the balance of risk right is quite a technical exercise,” Edwards points out.

Instead, Troubled Families uses PBR as a stimulus to get councils moving on work that should ultimately reap its own rewards. “Local authorities don’t get a lot of money in the greater scheme of things for turning round the lives of troubled families, but I think they can see it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “And if they can rethink the way they deliver services, there should be savings for them down the track.”

There should, of course, also be savings for central departments – in police and prisons spending, for example. But until those savings start coming through, it’s hard to get departments collaborating on a cross-departmental programme: “You have to be able to demonstrate to your colleagues in Whitehall that actually there are benefits for all concerned,” says Edwards. What gave Troubled Families the energy to achieve lift-off? “It was something that was very important to the prime minister,” she replies. “You’ve got an exceptional person in the form of Louise Casey driving the initiative. And I think people can see that in order to have an impact on troubled families, lots of areas of government policy have to come together.”

For Troubled Families to lead to substantial structural change in the way services are provided at a local level, it will have to produce big benefits for many of the departments and agencies providing relevant services. Similarly, the localism agenda has not yet prompted departments to hand lots of powers and funds down to councils: any such devolution will be a slow process, Edwards suggests, and one based on evidence that councils are best placed to tackle problems or improve efficiency. So while the community budget pilots – which looked for potential efficiencies in local public spending – “demonstrated the potential for doing things locally,” Edwards says, “you’re not going to get an overnight devolution of lots of things to local authorities. But if you can manage funds better at a local level, and get better value out of the money that is available, then I think central government listens.”

There will be no “dramatic shift” in spending power from the central to the local, she adds, “but bit by bit, I think you can see there is a shift in some service areas, and I would expect that to continue as resources get tighter.” Look at the Better Care fund, she says: it’s channelling £3.8bn to local service providers, and “if people can see that we’ll get better outcomes and better use of money, then that’s something to build on.”

Meanwhile, Edwards argues, government is making life easier for councils by reducing the burden of regulation, inspection and mandatory reporting. The department’s 2013-14 annual report points out that “71 data collections have been stopped and a further 21 have been significantly reduced” – though moves onto thinner ice when it adds that the “number of datasets on the Single Data List, a catalogue of all data collections local authorities are required to submit to central government, has been reduced from 151 in 2013-14 to 147 in 2014-15.”

Anyway, says Edwards, localism is not about handing powers down from the centre to local authorities; it’s about “putting local people in a position where they have much more influence and say over how money is spent, and much more involvement in decisions that affect them.” It is, to be quite clear, “about local authorities being more accountable to local people, and giving local people more rights”. And this explains why the centre has in some areas imposed more controls on council actions: ministers have acted to constrain parking charges and council tax rises, for example, because “they don’t want spending cuts simply to be passed through to local people.”

Even the coalition’s new local enterprise partnerships appear to be more heavily dependent on Whitehall than the regional development agencies that preceded them, winning cash by bidding to a central fund rather than having their own budgets. But Edwards maintains that “there’s a lot of dialogue, a lot of working with local areas before you get to the bidding process.” Anyway, she says, “it’s the start, isn’t it? It’s the beginning – and my guess is that it will get developed and refined as we go along.”

The government, Edwards explains, wants to reward trustworthy councils and incentivise good behaviour. So whilst the central government grant has shrunk dramatically, new funding pots have sprung up. “We now allow local authorities to keep half of business rates, for example, so that encourages a more entrepreneurial approach in terms of encouraging business to grow and flourish”. That scheme is returning £11bn to councils, she says, and the New Homes Bonus is distributing a further billion to authorities that facilitate housing developments.

Asked whether councils have gone further than central government in pursuing efficiency, Edwards responds that “they’ve done a fantastic job. I think they’ve been quite creative, quite innovative; and public satisfaction levels with local authorities are holding up very strongly. So they’ve made the efficiencies, they’ve looked at different ways of doing things, but with the exception of potholes, by and large people have not noticed a deterioriation in service. So I think they have been fantastically good.”

She hasn’t quite answered the question. But her department has, to be fair, endured its own substantial budget cuts. The annual report notes that “since 2010, DCLG has delivered the largest savings of any government department on a like-for-like basis”: by next March the administration budget will have fallen by 40% in five years, requiring staff cuts of 63%.

Exemplifying DCLG’s commitment to structural reform, it’s just given up its Victoria HQ and shacked up with the Home Office – saving it £9m a year, whilst redirecting its rent payments from a private landlord to a fellow department. The staff will all have moved across by the end of September, and everyone’s hot-desking: there are 10 staff for every seven seats, says Edwards. “So all of us, including the executive team – me, Sir Bob – don’t have a fixed desk. We’re trying to use it as an opportunity to push through different ways of working: people are less likely to be creative and innovative about their work if they’re sitting at a desk.” The staff are “positive about the new space”, she adds. After all, “if you can save money, then better to save it on buildings than people.”

The 2013 Civil Service People Survey suggests that DCLG staff are indeed feeling more positive: the engagement score is 49%, still nine points behind the civil service average but six points better than last year. “The engagement scores dipped quite significantly when the big restructuring of the department was taking place in 2011; it’s quite hard for people to feel engaged when there’s such radical change and a lot of people are leaving,” she explains; but the 2013 survey shows rises in many leadership and learning & development scores of around ten points.

These big improvements, she says, are a result of managers listening carefully and responding to people’s concerns. “Where we see that there’s a need for something to happen differently, we don’t just say at a senior management level: ‘This is what we’re going to do’,” Edwards says. “We get a cross-section of staff right across the department to focus on the problem and come up with recommendations. Then two things happen: first, you tend to get sensible recommendations because you’ve got the people involved who it will affect; and second, people feel bought into the recommendations”. Training for senior staff has helped, she adds, ensuring that “they’re not just good policy people, but really good managers and leaders too.”

This approach is bearing fruit: the proportion of staff who believe that their managers will act on the survey results rose 12 points in 2013 to 64%: five points above the civil service average. Meanwhile the proportion saying that “DCLG as a whole is managed well” rose 11 points to 43% - bang on average – and the proportion content that they can access the right learning and development opportunities leapt 12 points to 60% (one point off the average). On pay and benefits, too, the staff seem happy – with rises of 3-5 points in relevant questions putting the department well above the civil service average. So what’s dragging down DCLG’s score? There’s a problem around pride in the department.

The proportion of staff saying that they’re proud to tell people they work for DCLG may have risen 10 points in 2013, but it still sits at 32% – some 24 points off the average. “I think we’ve got a bit of a legacy problem – well, I hope it’s a legacy problem! – that we’re dealing with,” responds Edwards. The department’s name is less “obviously descriptive” than, for example, those for health or transport, she suggests, “and the department has changed shape quite a few times over recent years,” so people may feel less attached to it as an entity.

Edwards seems a little nonplussed by the poor scores around pride – perhaps because it doesn’t reflect her experience. Having cut staff numbers deep and early, DCLG is nowadays recruiting new staff from outside the department, and “all the new people who have come in – me included – think it’s a great department,” she says. “Without exception, they say it’s very friendly, it’s very welcoming, it’s very outward looking.”

This positive culture extends up to the top levels, says Edwards: the executive team is “very collegiate – and that’s not always the case. There aren’t any big egos getting in the way, and we have a lot of emphasis on working as a team.” The department also has an unusually diverse workforce: nearly 40% of senior civil servants are women, and around 20% are ethnic minority – double the civil service average.

DCLG’s high proportion of senior women and ethnic minority staff is, says Edwards, a testament to Kerslake’s loud commitment to equality of opportunity. Asked what will help more women reach the very top levels of the civil service, she talks about developing “pipelines of talent, and coaching people”; above all, though, “the commitment from the civil service has to be there. [Staff] have to keep hearing the messages that we want to be a representative workforce, and that it really matters.”

“It’s got to be a personal priority for the perm sec in a department, and for the executive team,” she argues. “It’s personal to me and to Bob, and everybody across all the departments has to feel that it’s personal there too. That way people will be prepared to put themselves forward and they’ll feel they’ve got the support to do it.” Departments must, she adds, “be able to demonstrate that people are being selected on merit and there isn’t a stereotype of what a top civil servant should be. So I think constantly working on that from the top and from the centre is really important.”

Talking of top and centre, Sir Bob is relinquishing his job as head of the civil service and returning to the department until he retires next February. Asked which elements of her workload he’ll be taking over, she replies: “I don’t think I’ll be handing back actually, because Bob’s fairly clear that there’s important things he wants to do in the time he’s got in the civil service.” He’s conducting a review of Birmingham City Council following the “Trojan Horse allegations” of Islamic influence on schools, and will be concentrating on “the capability of the department” and outstanding policy agendas. “He’s already said he doesn’t want to take back the things that he’s already delegated,” she adds. “So from my point of view it’s fine.”

Having had the experience of running the department, is it something Edwards would like to continue with after February? “I have enjoyed it,” she replies. “I liked coming to this department a lot.” I imagine she’d like to retain the freedom she’s enjoyed here, I say. “Yes, I hope so. And also developing the department. I’ve taken a lot of interest in staff engagement and the diversity agenda here, because this is a people business. Unless you’ve got a group of staff who are really fulfilling their potential, and really engaged and up for it, you can’t deliver good results.”

Certainly, the big uplifts in DCLG’s people survey scores suggest that Edwards’ brand of staff engagement is getting results. Informal feedback from DCLG staff reinforces the positive messages about the department’s de facto boss, and her experience in service delivery and the voluntary sector puts her in good stead with the councils and charities which deliver so many DCLG policies. Politics permitting, Edwards may indeed get to formalise her leadership of the department next February. But whatever happens, she’s clear that she’ll always be dependent on the staff and managers who turn a chief executive’s ambitions into reality. “I say to people who’ve been recently promoted: ‘Make sure you’ve got a really good team behind you, because you can’t be successful without that’,” she says. “A good proportion of your time must be spent building that team, not fronting it out with ministers or always staying on the front foot, taking decisions yourself.”

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