By Matt.Ross

21 Aug 2013

Rob Whiteman joined the civil service two years ago, as the UKBA chief; now he’s leaving. He tells Matt Ross about the need for delivery skills, the Brodie Clark affair, and life as a ‘transplant’ into the Whitehall machine

Rob Whiteman is all about service delivery and business transformation: a local authority high-flyer with a strong track record of organisational reform, he won the UK Border Agency chief’s job in 2011 as someone who’d fettle creaking structures, streamline processes and improve management. There had been a string of embarrassing blunders in the government’s handling of immigration issues, going back to Charles Clarke’s resignation over the foreign prisoners debacle in 2006, and it was hoped that Whiteman would build on his predecessor Lin Homer’s efforts to keep the UKBA off the front pages. But things didn’t work out like that.

Now leaving government for a job as chief executive of CIPFA, the professional body for public sector finance staff, Whiteman has had a tumultuous two years. He’d barely received his new business cards before he got mixed up in home secretary Theresa May’s very public sacking of UK Border Force chief Brodie Clark, which followed claims that Clark had exceeded his remit by suspending some border checks without authorisation. Investigations by the Home Affairs Select Committee and UKBA chief inspector John Vine left no-one looking good, with May, Clark and UKBA managers sharing the blame; May reacted by splitting the UKBA in two.

Then, earlier this year, the agency was abolished and its functions were brought back into the Home Office – a transition that Whiteman has overseen. So having joined the civil service determined to focus on improving service delivery and efficiency within this 24,000-strong organisation, Whiteman has instead found himself dismantling the agency; and doing so at the centre of a media-whipped political storm.

Whiteman probably wouldn’t put it quite like that – for he’s a charmer, not a controversialist: slipping past questions with an affable grin and a sideways step, he’s determined not to resurrect the Clark affair. Yet he does offer strong opinions on the civil service, and our interview identifies many of the underlying reasons why government struggles to improve complex and politically-charged areas of public services. These are probably best summed up in one of his comments: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” he says.

The full English
“The civil service is absolutely brilliant at developing policy options for ministers and designing how they can be implemented,” Whiteman points out, but it’s “less strong at the rest: how do we reform ourselves organisationally? How do we have the right IT? How do we save money? How do we do all the things that are about being a well-run, modern organisation?” Whitehall’s single-minded focus on policymaking “crowds out organisational business strategy and running operations”, he argues – but he’s not blaming political imperatives for that weakness: “I think there’s something about our own ethos. It isn’t ingrained in the civil service’s DNA that we should make ourselves efficient organisations.”

Transformation and efficiency doesn’t get the same attention within the civil service as in other parts of the economy, Whiteman argues: “In the outside world, things such as organisational reform tend to be at the top of the pile,” he says. “We’ve got further to go on that.” And whilst the default view within Whitehall is that departments are experiencing punishing budget cuts and implementing major reforms, he believes that in fact central government is way behind much of the wider public sector: “There’s a sense in the civil service that we haven’t got enough money to do the job, and personally I don’t believe that’s true,” he says. “In relative terms, we’ve probably started from a place where money is not tight in the way that it is in some other parts of the public sector.” Outside the civil service, Whiteman argues, officials “haven’t got any choice: you are having to make very big reductions because you’re losing your funding. In government, it always feels that we’ve got a bit of choice”.

Many top officials recognise the civil service’s weakness in skills such as business transformation, project management and IT, he continues, and seek to attract them from the private and wider public sectors: “Be in no doubt that there’s an intellectual belief that bringing in people from the outside is a good thing.” But this recent Whitehall immigrant complains that as “soon as the transplant is complete, the antibodies will be all over you, trying to turn you into a civil servant and not the organ that’s been transplanted. There is a very strong culture here that problems are solved by doing things the civil service way, rather than learning from how other organisations do it. I think there’s an insular culture”. Whiteman really doesn’t want to come across as critical – there’s no room here for all the compliments he pays the civil service – but he’s clearly found it tough to get new ideas adopted. For a new recruit the civil service “is, I find, a challenging environment to come into,” he says, before adding: “And I mean that in a positive way.”

The nature of the beast
In part, Whiteman argues, this concentration on policymaking over delivery and reform is rooted in the civil service’s unique position. In the public sector outside Whitehall, employees are “not passing legislation; you’re not making laws: the government has set an agenda for your organisation, and your job is to get on and have the capability to deliver it. So it’s a more straightforward job.” By the same token, within government “there’s more profile to what you do; there are more potential distractions or things that can knock you off course – such as the media”.

Similarly, whilst he argues for faster outsourcing of civil service functions, Whiteman recognises that even the leaders of very large government organisations must ensure that reforms fit the strategy being set by the centre – and that this will sometimes create delays. Yet he sounds impatient: “On the whole we have outsourced new things that have come along: we’ve outsourced greenfield rather than brownfield activity… I think we ought to use the market more, so I’m surprised that we haven’t outsourced more of our support roles,” he says. “You absolutely have to accept that sometimes you can’t do things as quickly as you want to because there is a bigger picture into which you fit. But I don’t think that should be an excuse for how long some things take.”

Despite, these constraints, Whiteman believes, the civil service can transform itself. But first, it will have both to give operational delivery professionals – who comprise about 70 per cent of all civil servants – the same status, influence and opportunities as policymakers; and to drop its instinctive preference for home-grown talent, techniques and technologies, becoming much more open to the world outside.

“This class distinction, where operations are not as important as policy – I think everybody wants that to end,” he says. “I mean, I hope so, because I think the future success of the civil service depends on having a much broader range of skills and talent that are rewarded.”

Payment on delivery
Rewarding those delivery professionals, Whiteman argues, will first involve tweaking senior civil service appointment processes to recognise the importance of their skills. “A lot of the right noises have beeen made; it’s now a question of executing it,” he says. “It’s absolutely clear that we want to see permanent secretaries who have some experience of operations. And that needs to be seen through.”

Second, learning and talent management within the operational delivery profession will have to improve: he mentions accredited learning recognised across Whitehall; shadowing and secondments; and cross-departmental career development for the next generation of high-flyers. Third, he cites promotion work – designed both to encourage delivery staff to aspire to leadership roles, and to change mindsets among other civil servants.

Above all, he says, the civil service’s top players will have to keep up the pressure on this agenda; it sounds as if he’s seen a few well-meaning initiatives dissipate for want of leadership. “No one thing on its own will change the culture,” he says. “But if we really stick to those things without failing, then in three or four years the civil service could feel very different.”

So much for the theory
It is hard to tell whether Whiteman thinks that a UKBA with stronger practical management and operational delivery skills might have avoided abolition. Certainly, UKBA inspector Vine’s report into the Clark affair blamed “poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities,” plus a failure to establish clear frameworks governing the circumstances in which particular border checks could be relaxed. “There is nothing I have discovered which could not have been identified and addressed by senior managers exercising proper oversight,” Vine said (see box for events timeline).

Yet whilst Whiteman is happy to talk about how our border operations have responded to the recommendations of the Vine and Home Affairs Select Committee reports, he shies away from discussing the root causes of the agency’s failures. Readers will have to fill in the gaps themselves between Whiteman’s stance on the status of operational delivery in government, and the failures in communications and leadership that created so much divergence between ministers’ expectations and the reality of life in the Border Force.

What is clear is that the Clark debacle would not have occurred had there been a set of rules to – as Vine put it – “unambiguously specify the checks that must be carried out at all times and those where there is discretion to suspend checks based on risk or health and safety”, plus clear authorisation processes governing any suspensions. Guidance did exist on when ‘Warnings Index’ (WI) checks could be lifted if long queues were creating health and safety dangers; and the WI was included in the pilot of a risk-based approach, under which border guards were given powers to allow in low-risk travellers without carrying out some checks. But the agency’s new ‘Secure ID’ check was introduced without any guidance as to when it might be suspended, and many officials (including Clark) viewed it as less crucial than WI – so despite Secure ID’s exclusion from the risk-based pilot, UKBA frontline managers regularly waived the check on health and safety grounds. Ministers, it seems, remained blissfully unaware.

Furthermore, even on WI the guidance was vague: “There was no clear understanding of when ‘health and safety’ was a ground for suspension,” said Vine. The result, said the select committee, was that health and safety concerns “might be being used inappropriately at local level as a management tool instead of an emergency provision”. In other words, frontline staff faced with queues caused by a shortage of border staff or other problems were regularly misusing health and safety provisions to enable them to suspend the WI and Secure ID checks – in the latter case, without ministerial approval, risk analysis, or any kind of formal assessment or reporting system.

Asked whether it was obvious when he joined UKBA that these ambiguities existed, Whiteman replies that in some areas the operating policies, compliance procedures and auditing functions were very good. “If you look at the processes and procedures in place for dealing with foreign national offenders or other potentially high-harm individuals, these are things the Home Office takes very seriously,” he says. “The question is about making them more consistent. When you look at world-class organisations, the good practice is standard; and if you’re doing something well in one area, you adopt that approach across the rest.”

The civil service reform agenda, he adds, is in part about improving this ability to identify best practice and implement it across the piece. Currently, though, it sounds as if our systems are tight in areas where we’ve recently experienced a big scandal – such as foreign prisoners, terrorism and now, presumably, border checks – but not necessarily outside those fields.

Broken management chains
Communications up and down UKBA’s lines of command were also flawed: the select committee found that reporting lines were “long and fragmented”, and pointed out that the home secretary may not even have been told about the health and safety guidelines permitting WI suspensions. Whiteman agrees that “we made the mistake of using every grade in the management hierarchy, and I feel very strongly that that’s wrong. You can’t have ten layers of management between the board and the frontline.”

Rather than working within tottering vertical structures in which “the journey from the frontline to the board is a long one, where the board might not know what’s going on, or the frontline may feel that it can’t tell the board what’s going on,” says Whiteman, our border staff now have just four layers of management between the frontline and the board. Grade six and sevens, in particular, shouldn’t be used as separate layers of management, but as “the same layer with two grades,” he argues. “I feel quite proud of the work we’ve done in a short space of time to delayer our management hierarchies.”

So gaps in procedures and communications created the spaces within which UKBA managers departed from ministers’ expectations. But does Whiteman think that agency staff deliberately misused health and safety rules to find a way round May’s insistence that Secure ID be excluded from the risk-based pilot? “I don’t know the reasons that gave rise to what was taking place,” he replies. “I wouldn’t go down the rabbit hole of what happened in the past and what that can prove now. John Vine’s report showed that we needed to act in a more consistent and high-quality way, and the Home Office has set about learning from the report and making considerable improvements.”

Further questions produce many more words but no more answers, and we move onto another difficult question: does he think May acted fairly when she, in advance of any formal inquiry, condemned Clark’s work in the House of Commons? To be fair, this is an impossible question for Whiteman to answer – he doesn’t want to begin his new job at CIPFA amidst headlines reading ‘UKBA chief turns on May over Brodie Clark sacking’ – and his answer is best described as woolly: in essence, he suggests that ministers are held closely to account by Parliament, and need to be able to hold their officials as publicly to account; and that whilst MPs want to have a more direct relationship with senior officials, ministers are increasingly pulling agencies back into their mother departments because they “don’t want to put their problems at arm’s length for someone else to be accountable”.

Looking forwards
Whiteman then asks what I think. Officials should be more accountable, I reply, but via stronger duties to give evidence at select committees – not by being publicly shamed by a minister using parliamentary privilege to sack them without an investigation (the Home Office eventually paid Clark to drop a case for constructive dismissal). “Yes, yes, yes,” Whiteman cries; then he drags the conversation onto CIPFA, and the importance of finance skills in dealing with the challenges facing government.

It’s an important point, of course: “We’re not going to manage these savings through incremental change; we’re going to manage them through transformation,” he says. That requires a “finance profession that’s really up to the task of helping organisations to transform, and investing in the things that improve our businesses and save money and lead to a better customer experience”.

This is an essential part of creating the kind of civil service that Whiteman wants to see: the civil service so evident at the London Olympics, in which dozens of government bodies collaborated to “have a deadline, have the targets, brigade all the right capability in the right place, achieve rapid progress, and deliver on time,” he says. “The Olympics shows that the civil service can really deliver when it needs to; when it creates very clear programmes, relying on a range of skills, against agreed targets. We need that clarity about what it is we need to achieve every day of the week – not just for the Olympics.”

In Whiteman’s view, achieving that kind of success every day, everywhere, will require the civil service to transform not only its finance skills, but also its approach to strategic management and operational delivery work. “On the whole, I’ve been successful in my career by doing things that aren’t necessarily that sexy: making sure organisations have good clerical operations; that you answer correspondence; that you have good data; that your staff are well trained and know what they’re doing,” he says. “Those things are harder to deliver here, because the good bread and butter doesn’t necessarily get the focus and attention that it would in other organisations.”

“If anybody said to me: ‘Is it worth going into the civil service?’ then I’d say yes, because there are some really exciting jobs. They’re big, tough jobs, but they’re really rewarding,” Whiteman says. But it sounds as if he’s quite looking forward to going back to the unsexy, bread-and-butter work of the finance profession. “If people want an exciting few years of being stretched, then entering the civil service is definitely a good thing,” he concludes.

Rob Whiteman has certainly had an exciting few years; but at the end of the day, he’d probably rather have swapped some of that excitement for an environment more favourable to sensible management and organisational change. And thus another attempted transplant departs the host body, leaving the civil service with one less top-level operational delivery professional. Ministers and senior colleagues will probably be relieved that he hasn’t said anything embarrassing about the Clark affair; instead, they should probably be embarrassed at what he has said about the civil service’s culture, ethos and priorities.

See also:
News: Whiteman: delivery skills gap

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