By Joshua.Chambers

01 Nov 2013

The Supreme Court chief executive Jenny Rowe tells Joshua Chambers how she’s going against the grain on shared services, procurement and civil service reform

A single horse chestnut sits on the table in the plush office of Jenny Rowe, chief executive of the UK’s Supreme Court. It’s the first one of autumn, she explains, and a colleague has whimsically suggested that they find another and play the schoolyard game of conkers.

The Supreme Court combines respect for tradition with a level of unstuffy informality that’s a little surprising in the highest branch of the British judiciary. But the institution does, after all, have one foot in both the old and new: while our legal system stretches back hundreds of years, a creation of precedent and gradual reform, the court is a very modern invention.

A sense of openness pervades its airy headquarters, hinted at by the friendly, light-touch security; the glass-walled, light-filled corridors; and the smiling teddy bears sitting by the cheery receptionists.

As government institutions go, the Supreme Court is on the small side; but like the civil service across the UK, it’s facing up to the big challenges of shrinking budgets, technological change, and new working practices. Bucking the trend in many areas, it operates outside of the rules that other organisations must follow – especially on civil service reform. In the process, it’s coming up with ideas that are worth examination by big and small organisations alike.

Supreme since when?
While legislation was passed to found the Supreme Court in 2005, it wasn’t created until 2009. Rowe became chief executive in May 2008, she recalls, “even though there wasn’t yet an institution to be chief executive of!” She worked with the Ministry of Justice in setting up the court, recruited her team, and gradually took operational control from the ministry.

There was a long gap before the court opened, she explains, because the government struggled to find a location, and then – rather ironically – it became tangled up in legal challenges over the refurbishment of its eventual home. It sits in a building on Parliament Square opposite the Palace of Westminster, between the Treasury and Westminster Abbey. Symbolically speaking, it’s the perfect position, sitting alongside what essayist Walter Bagehot once called the “executive, legislative, and dignified” parts of the English constitution.

The court was established after the New Labour government decided to reform the constitution and remove law lords from the House of Lords, abolishing an 800-year-old committee and creating a separate institution instead. “The government took the view that it was right to have greater clarity, and a greater degree of real separation, between the highest court in the United Kingdom, the legislature, and the executive,” Rowe says. The Tories opposed the move, as did the Daily Mail – which warned that the move risked the “rise of a British Hitler” – and some senior members of the judiciary. Lord Judge, the lord chief justice of England and Wales until September this year, warned: “We have to remember that Hitler came to power in a democratic country by getting a significant vote and then subverting the constitution.”

However, the establishment of a Supreme Court has now been widely accepted as a done deal, and it’s quietly getting on with the job of mulling over some of the most important legal cases of the past few years. These include assisted suicide, overdraft charges, and the balance of power between the Westminster government and the devolved administrations.

Ruling the roost
The court must be seen to be independent, Rowe says, so it’s classified as a non-ministerial department, with her as the accounting officer. “We’re not part of the Ministry of Justice; we’re not part of the Court Service of England and Wales, or that of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she says. “I want to emphasise that we are the United Kingdom Supreme Court, not the England and Wales Supreme Court.”

There’s a tendency for people to believe that “England and Wales” is “synonymous with Britain,” she adds, but her court must be seen to be working for all the nations of the UK. It has a formal relationship with the lord chancellor, Chris Grayling, who – while also the justice secretary – must answer parliamentary questions in his non-partisan role as the minister accountable for the judiciary. And its funding doesn’t come from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but directly from the Treasury – though there are contributions from each nation’s courts services, calculated according to the number of cases they put through the court.

Rowe says that keeping in touch with all of the legal systems interacting with the Supreme Court is a “really important” part of her role, because she needs to understand the issues and tensions they’re experiencing. “The obvious one we’re keeping an eye on is the debate in Scotland about independence,” she notes. There’s also a case soon to arise over whether the Welsh Government has exceeded its powers in passing legislation.

Sharing ain’t caring
Given its level of autonomy, the court has the freedom to decide whether it shares any back-office functions with other bodies – and it’s currently breaking away from shared service arrangements to set up its own contracts. This goes against the reforms being championed by the Cabinet Office.

“When we started up, the decision had been taken that we would piggy-back on a number of Ministry of Justice contracts. Since then we’ve been undertaking a rolling review of all our contracts, conducting our own procurement exercises, so we can get the best value for money for us,” she says. This has led to the replacement of a whole raft of contracts, because “we have a lot of specific requirements, so we’ve now got contracts that are much more tailored to our needs. We’ve saved money by doing so.”

Sometimes it simply doesn’t make sense to share services, Rowe believes: “You have to look at your own particular circumstances.” She notes that she’s bound by the legislation that established the Supreme Court, which requires her to “deliver the most efficient and economic service. So I’ve got the double whammy: I’m held by statute to do it, as well as being an accounting officer where you have to do it anyway.”

Contracts the court has left include those covering security, finance, facilities management, cleaning, and human resources; and it’s just about to finalise a new, independent deal on IT procurement. Rowe’s argument is one that could well be adopted by other small organisations. “Our needs are, in some areas, relatively simple,” she says. “If you look at the needs of the Ministry of Justice, it’s a very large department – courts, prisons, probation – with lots of different requirements. They have to have, in some areas, quite complex systems.”

Rowe felt duty-bound to move away from MoJ systems because “we don’t need that [complexity]. Look at the unit cost [of those systems] for me as an accounting officer. We found that we were paying much more than we needed to for a service that was giving us more than was required.” Instead, the Supreme Court simplified its requirements, looking for the cheapest systems that will serve only their needs.

IT’s unusual
Does the Cabinet Office mind that she’s taking a different approach from the model it’s encouraging departments to adopt? Rowe smiles: “You have to be careful how you use that – I don’t want Francis Maude beating his way to my door!” Then she’s serious again: “The Cabinet Office know about it, absolutely.”

Even in the sensitive area of recycled paper procurement – a topic that has received more newspaper coverage this year than could ever be reasonably expected – the Supreme Court is looking for the best value, and will not go through the centralised purchasing route. “We’ll use different ways of getting things; it’s in our interests,” she says. “Our budget is under strain”.

The courts service of England and Wales is modernising and putting a great deal of its paperwork online. But the Supreme Court isn’t doing the same, having taken advantage of the move from Parliament in 2009 to modernise its own infrastructure. Are they still paper-based? “We’re a mixed economy at the moment,” she says. They use paper, but also ask for files to be submitted electronically to allow the justices (Supreme Court judges) to choose.

Rowe’s trying to encourage the justices to make more use of electronic media, rather than setting a strict deadline for eliminating paper, as has happened in the Crown Prosecution Service. “I don’t think we’re ever going to eliminate papers completely,” she says. “The legal profession tends to be innately conservative with a small ‘c’, and there is a fear of using technology.”

The court’s making progress, though, and as part of its latest IT procurements, it’s buying a range of laptops and tablets from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The court’s IT requirements have been broken down into three separate contracts, all currently being finalised for three- to five-year deals.

“Our experience so far with SMEs is that they value us as a customer. It’s quite good to have the Supreme Court as a customer; one can play on this a bit. They’re very keen to make things work and help us,” Rowe says. “It makes the contract management much easier, as well. It’s quite a lot of money from my point of view, but to big organisations we’re relatively small and with the contract that we lodge, would we be on their radar? No. To the contract manager in an SME? Yes.” Signing short-term contracts will also allow them to quickly adapt to technological developments, she adds.

For its IT procurement, the Supreme Court used the Cabinet Office’s G-Cloud, finding the centre of government was “very encouraging” on this front, “because they see that we’re buying from SMEs.”

The building burden
Rowe has to buy cheaply because of a large and growing financial burden being placed on the Supreme Court: its building costs. “This is not a cheap building,” she says. “The refurbishment here was done under a private developers’ scheme, which is slightly different from PFI – but please don’t ask me to explain how, okay? We know how much the rent will be every quarter for 30 years, and it goes up.” Alongside this, there have been pay increases for judges, a change to judges’ employer national insurance rates, escalating utility bills, and a declining real-terms budget.

Despite the pressures on expenditure, though, Rowe has managed to ensure that every time the court signs a contract, its contractors pay all staff the London Living Wage (£8.55 an hour) – a significant achievement for a government department. “It seems a fair thing to do. But we’ve managed to do that whilst actually reducing the cost of the contracts, through other things that we’ve done. A bit of hard negotiation and a bit of changing the requirements,” she says. “It’s easier for us than some big departments [to pay a living wage] – I’m not trying to say that everyone can do it, I want to make that absolutely clear – but we took a conscious decision as a management team that we should aim to do this.”

Law isn’t a particularly diverse area, but the Supreme Court has worked hard to ensure that its staff represent the public they serve. More than half are female, and more than a quarter aren’t white. Diversity is a struggle in appointing the justices – 11 white men and one white woman – but not for the Supreme Court’s civil servants. Is diversity something Rowe’s team bear in mind when recruiting? If they had two equally-qualified candidates, and one was from a minority group, would that be taken into consideration? “I’m sure it would be a factor,” she responds. Should other organisations consider that as well? “I think people do; they’ve been doing it for years.”

Why, then, isn’t the civil service getting any more diverse in the senior ranks? “There is a bit of a challenge at the moment in the senior ranks, I do entirely take that point. I don’t know if people are thinking that civil service careers aren’t as attractive as they were,” she says. When Rowe directly recruited people (that’s now the responsibility of her HR team), she recalls, she used to receive lots of female and ethnic minority applications for jobs in law and other specialist professions, such as accounting. “I didn’t find it too difficult to offer opportunities to people from a range of communities.”

The Supreme Court does a great deal of outreach work to boost its image, she adds. It runs a judicial assistants scheme advertised in ethnic minority publications, for example, and works with schools to discuss careers in law and the courts service. Being in a separate building helps, because it’s easier to host school groups than it was in the House of Lords.

Rejecting reforms
When it comes to the wider Civil Service Reform Plan, Rowe says her organisation is “engaged, but [the agenda is] just part of a wider picture” for the Supreme Court. “We have to take from it what we need in order to do jobs that are here”.

Some smaller organisations have told CSW that they struggle to sell civil service reform to their staff, because at a time of shrinking budgets, the media coverage and internal messaging have focused on cuts to terms and conditions – meaning that reform becomes yet another difficult message to sell to staff in austerity conditions. Rowe agrees, adding that “at the moment we aren’t changing our staff terms and conditions, because I see no need to do so.”

Her managers are just about to start considering their pay strategy, “and obviously we’ll take account of what’s happening elsewhere,” she says, “but my responsibility is to make sure that the Supreme Court and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council operates as effectively as possibly, and that’s what I will have in mind, along with the rest of the management team, when looking at these issues.” Her emphasis is on making her organisation work, not demonstrating conformity: “You see, this is not a theoretical exercise for me; this is a real, practical issue.”

As a small organisation, the Supreme Court isn’t able to offer its staff a long-term career path, she says, so it’s also important that it improves their skills and equips them to compete for other jobs elsewhere. One of the parts of the Civil Service Reform Plan aims to get civil servants moving into different departments as they develop in their careers. Rowe says she has looked to move staff into other departments “in a limited way,” but “my only experience from a few years ago was going out on secondment to do something, only to come back and find that they’d forgotten about me and said: ‘Sorry Jenny, we’ve got no job for you to come back to.’ So I hope people have got better about that kind of thing.”

Rowe’s experiences are also interesting when it comes to another reform: the plan for ‘extended ministerial offices’ envisages ministers appointing more civil servants, special advisers and external experts to their private offices. Rowe spent a chunk of her career as private secretary to a couple of lord chancellors; and given the vast size of that role – especially when New Labour was pursuing constitutional reform, devolution, freedom of information, and the Human Rights Act – their private office had to be expanded. “It was absolutely necessary for it to be expanded; there was no doubt about it,” Rowe says. An external “expert advisor” was also brought in to help, she adds.

Rowe declines to provide a view on the measure, but says that from her experience the critical thing about running a large private office is communication: “Communication with the private secretaries; with the minister; with the permanent secretary and officials; with special advisers – and making sure that everybody who needs to be in the tent at a particular time is there.” The arrival of a 24-hour news media has heightened the importance of keeping everyone up to speed, she adds.

Rowe nearly became caught up in another recent reform, the bonfire of the quangos. “Somebody in the Cabinet Office put the Supreme Court on the list of quangos,” she says, adding “Quite, thank you!” as I inadvertently gurn a bemused look. “The… Supreme… Court… Is… Not… A… ‘Quango’.”

It’s been a wide-ranging interview, with Rowe drawing on her vast experience of public life in a variety of careers (see box). “People use generalist in a pejorative way; it doesn’t need to be,” she says. Some people make an interview all about their personal initiatives and aims, but it’s noticeable that Rowe has made it about the institution she works for. Her love of the court is clear as we wander through it for the photoshoot, with her pointing out interesting architectural features.

When the court was established, she recalls, “I wondered how long we would be described as the ‘new Supreme Court’, but it was quite striking how quickly we were accepted as part of the fabric of the judicial system.” Her organisation tries to be as open to the public as possible, posting videos on YouTube and putting cameras in the courts for broadcasters. “We’re not hiding behind anything: we put as much information as we can out into the public domain,” she says. And in a pleasingly unstuffy way, Rowe ends with a phrase that perhaps best sums up the Supreme Court. “We do our best.”

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