By Matt.Ross

13 Jul 2011

Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Suma Chakrabarti has achieved big savings while focusing on evidence-based policy and payment-by-results – but now a political squal has upset his plans. Matt Ross meets him.

102 Petty France, the home of the Ministry of Justice, looks like it was designed to repel invaders: a brutalist, 1970s pile, its protruding, battlement-like top floors and reflective windows give it a secretive and medieval appearance. Indeed, until quite recently conditions inside this concrete castle were somewhat backward – both physically, and in terms of the painful politics played out behind its towering walls.

Occupied by the Home Office since 1978, by the turn of the millennium both building and department were in poor condition. “I went in one morning and the building was creaking. It was beginning to fall apart; a kind of metaphor, really,” former home secretary David Blunkett recalled last year. That day, he discovered, the sewerage system had gone into reverse – “and I thought: ‘Well, that just about sums it all up’.”

Since then, much has changed. The Home Office moved out of the building in 2004, and in 2007 the struggling department was broken in two to create the Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, Petty France was thoroughly refurbished, and in 2008 the MoJ moved back into what is now – on the inside, at least – a light, modern office block. With the Home Office ensconced around the corner in its own shiny new building, things have much improved since the days when New Labour’s first home secretary Jack Straw used to call his offices ‘Lubyanka’ after the KGB’s Moscow home.

Under siege – again
On the day that I call by to interview permanent secretary Suma Chakrabarti (pictured above), however, the occupants of this Whitehall fortress could be forgiven for reverting to something of a siege mentality. Two days previously, justice secretary Ken Clarke’s plans to reform sentencing were dramatically modified after a hostile media campaign and interventions by Number 10, forcing the MoJ to rethink both its policies and its budgets. Yet Chakrabarti sounds philosophical when I ask how he finds working at a department so closely scrutinised by an opinionated media. “Not a day goes by without us being in the headlines,” he says. “When I was working for [former international development secretary] Clare Short during the Iraq war, we were in the headlines a lot – but it is more intensive here.”

He also sounds thoroughly uncowed by the media cacophony on sentencing policy. “Does it make one trim a bit more? I think you go for broke, always,” he says. “You give your best advice based on the evidence, and if the politics isn’t with you then you have to – to some extent – reshape the agenda.” That reshaping is, of course, now underway – but more of this later; for if the MoJ hasn’t yet managed to change its policies as it had hoped, it has made huge changes to its internal operations. Any fair discussion of Suma Chakrabarti’s work at the department should start with the far-reaching programme of efficiency and policy reforms he kicked off in February ‘09: Transforming Justice (TG).

Working on long-term policy development as well as organisational change, the TG team has pursued dispute mediation, legal aid reform, payment by results and social investment alongside more traditional cost-cutting initiatives such as shared services and better estates management. Think-tank the Institute for Government, which is monitoring the programme, has given it a glowing report. But Chakrabarti acknowledges that it hasn’t been an easy road – and nor is it getting smoother. “I’ve reduced my number of directors-general from 13 to six in a year, and this is painful for colleagues,” he says. “It’s going to be very, very difficult for us, because the cuts will now kick in – in a big way.”

Morale, he adds, is also affected by issues beyond his control. “Obviously, the pensions debate is going on for all of us ‘up there’, and that’s going to affect how staff feel,” he comments. But Chakrabarti is proud of “the engagement we’ve had with the staff to push this agenda”. To win people over to a major change programme, run at a time of eye-watering cuts, the MoJ’s top team has used three core arguments.

Making the case for change
First, says Chakrabarti, there was an appeal to employees’ commitment to improving public services. “Are we really satisfied with the outcomes, the processes [in the justice system]? Do we feel good enough about it?” he asks. “We do not.” Second, he urged staff to make full use of the MoJ’s establishment. “This is an opportunity to make the justice system really joined-up. We no longer have the excuse that we’re not joined-up because we don’t have the proper arrangements,” says Chakrabarti. And third – predictably enough – he pointed to the need to maintain service quality at a time of falling budgets. “There are good financial reasons for getting on with this,” he says.

Disseminated with the help of 1,500 volunteer ‘transformers’, these messages have helped the MoJ “buck the trend”, says Chakrabarti: the department was one of only two to increase its ‘employee engagement index’ in the latest civil service staff survey. But other factors have also been important in enabling Chakrabarti to chivvy his department in new directions.

One, somewhat paradoxically, is his lack of expertise in criminal justice. Having worked at the Department for International Development (DfID) for years, Chakrabarti knew its brief inside out. But when he came to MoJ, “I was a novice in the field,” he confesses. “So you have to realise what you’ve been brought in to do, and I was brought in to make the organisation a player in Whitehall. Here, I’m doing much more of a ‘leading and managing change’-type role than I did at DfID, where I could play a role in policy more easily. You have to realise what your strengths are, and play to them.”

Meanwhile, he adds, the fact that he didn’t know the top team well when he arrived at MoJ also affects the way he operates. “I knew people in DfID; I’d grown up with them, and I could operate a lot of the reform through people as well as systems,” he comments. “I don’t have that luxury here. So I use the systems much more to try and get change; it’s a more technocratic approach, if you like, than I would have had at DfID.”

Getting out of jail
One other key factor has shaped Chakrabarti’s reform programme: an ambition to see the MoJ breaking free from sectoral interests. The MoJ’s predecessors, says Chakrabarti, “were regarded as captured by the sector; by legal interests. The reinvention of MoJ is about establishing ourselves as being here for the citizen, not to defend the legal sector’s interests. Where those interests are the same as the citizen’s, fine; but if they’re in conflict, we’re backing the citizen.” He cites the reforms to legal aid as a classic case: “The interests – the Bar Council, the Law Society and so on – will say: ‘This is the end of civilisation as we know it.’ But actually what we’ve done is reshape access so that it’s focused on those who need it, and aim to cut fees.”

Changing – into what?
So where is all this change taking the MoJ? Well, into new kinds of policy: the department has for some time been testing out approaches now championed by the coalition. For example, says Chakrabarti, youth offending teams (YOTs) – which bring together professionals such as council officials, police, probation officers, social workers and drug treatment staff at the local authority level – present “the sort of model that, I think, we’ll have to build more of in all our services” in order to realise the aims of the localism agenda.

Under that agenda, he continues, the MoJ is foreswearing intervention in troubled YOTs, instead linking them with their more successful peers. “It’s a reshaping of the national role,” he says. “Less interventionalist. More lesson-learning, trying to prompt local action. It’s quite a change of gear.”

This shift of control to the local level is also, he says, a change of gear for the media and politicians. “It means that ministers and senior civil servants have to start behaving in a different way, and realising that they’re not accountable for everything; and the media has to shift to hold people at local level to account, not just people here. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily play well with the way our politics is,” he comments.

Asked about progress on pooling departmental spending in the ‘community budget’ pilots now under way, Chakrabarti says he “didn’t get to the last localism meeting; I was stuck on sentencing”. But he has strong experience of pooled budgets, having launched the idea during his time at the Performance and Innovation Unit, and subsequently helped manage the ‘conflict pool’ shared by DfID, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office (FCO). “It works if your objectives are aligned,” he observes. “It doesn’t work if they aren’t.”

“When I was at DfID – I’m sure it’s much better now – the conflict pool for Africa worked really well, because essentially DfID, the MoD and the FCO all had the same objectives,” he recalls. “The conflict pool for the rest of the world did not work very well, because we had different objectives. Take Nepal. There, DfID had development objectives which probably meant engaging with the Maoist [rebels] in the field. The FCO had rather traditional ‘defending the king’ objectives at the time – I’m sure they’ve modernised now – and the MoD had gurkha interests. These are three completely different objectives; agreeing how to spend that conflict pool was a painful experience.” So aligning departments’ objectives will be crucial to making community budget pilots work: they’re focused on problem families, Chakrabarti notes – and “this is one area where we could have alignment quite easily”.

Working on commission
The MoJ has also been at the forefront of the shift to payment by results, and is launching six pilots this summer. Asked what the department has learnt while setting them up, Chakrabarti – not for the first time during our interview – names three lessons.

The first is to examine ideas in detail before discarding them: one early project looked risky, he says, and “had I reached a decision in a flash, I might have said ‘no’ to the whole idea”. The second is to get innovative, adventurous people working on the policy, and to allow them plenty of space: “We’ve given them freedom to design this in the way that will get the best outcomes, and told them we’ll talk about value for money and accountability later.” And the third is that the right skills “are in short supply in government.”

Those skills include the ability to write payment-by-results contracts and commission providers. “And you can’t just have people in the procurement department doing this,” he adds. “You need people in the policy and delivery areas thinking about contracts and risk transfer. Because if we’re going to roll this thing out to scale, we’re going to have to do it at local level.” Those skills are in short supply in Whitehall, says Chakrabarti – and the current pay freeze and recruitment restrictions restrict the government’s ability to bring them in.

“That’s a problem at the moment; there’s no doubt about it,” he says. And the problem is worsening as growth creeps back into the private sector, widening the pay differential. “Obviously, [many people in] public service are willing to take some sort of differential, but if it gets too much out of kilter it is difficult,” Chakrabarti observes. “That is a big risk for us.”

Getting the credit
If all the MoJ’s new approaches bear fruit, then the crime figures – in decline for over a decade – will fall still further. However, Chakrabarti concedes that getting the credit would be trickier: after all, “while most of us believe crime has dropped in our localities, most people believe that crime is rising nationally.”

“Partly, that’s the media,” he adds. “The focus on particular cases makes people believe these things.” And that’s a problem for Chakrabarti and Clarke: the debate over crime and justice is not based on hard facts, but refracted through a distorting media lens that can rapidly erode political will at the centre. Hence the U-turn forced on the MoJ by a PM who – he told reporters – prioritises “public confidence in the system”. Politically, what matters is not crime rates, but fear of crime; and that’s shaped not by criminals, but by the media.

Asked what Clarke is like to work with, Chakrabarti is effusive. “We civil servants are meant to be quiet about ministers,” he replies. “But he’s absolutely brilliant.” It’s clear that the permanent secretary admires his secretary of state’s focus on evidence-based policy; on the long-term vision; and on what works well, rather than what plays well in the media. “He’s very strategic: he looks at the evidence and knows where he wants to get to,” says Chakrabarti. “He’s not tactical, day by day, living off the headlines.”

Clarke cares passionately about his accountability: “Obviously the media’s important too, but for him the ultimate accountability is to Parliament,” says Chakrabarti. And the veteran minister is not a micro-manager: “He’s very clear, whenever anyone suggests something on personnel, structural, skills issues. He says: ‘That’s Suma’s job, not mine’,” recalls the permanent secretary. “He’s so clear about what we do and what he does.”

Where now?
In government, though, this willingness to prioritise good policy over shrewd politics – rare in a politician – has obvious weaknesses; hence Chakrabarti’s need to find another £100m to pay for the last-minute changes to sentencing policy. Over the next three months, the department will be making yet more efficiency savings, driving their burden of the budget cuts up from 50 to 60 per cent. “If anyone says we’re not doing enough on efficiency, they should check their figures!” he says.

There are obvious implications for the department’s fragile morale, Chakrabarti concedes. “Staff have been very committed to this agenda, and they thought it had been locked down; and now it’s changed,” he says. “So first of all we have to remind ourselves that we’re civil servants, and it’s the right of ministers to come up with a different way of doing things. Our job is then to find the best way of fixing the gap.” That, he adds, will involve “getting my hands dirty, because efficiency savings impact on people’s jobs. There’s going to have to be some impact on the way we run our business.”

“Secondly, we’ve got to get ourselves excited about some of the options,” he continues. “Because there were some quite radical options about the way we do things that we thought were off the table, and now come back on the table. Whether ministers want to go with some of those ideas, we’ll have to see. But we have to generate a sense of excitement about those ideas.”

“And thirdly” – there was bound to be a ‘thirdly’ – “we’ve got to celebrate at the end of this process with those people whose ideas are accepted,” Chakrabarti concludes. “I want to calibrate our bonuses and public recognition around new ideas and innovation at the end of this process – because we’re going to have to come up with some pretty radical ideas to fill the gap.”

In recent days, the newspapers have been full of speculation that the Probation Service will bear the brunt of those additional £100m savings. But if Chakrabarti has his way, the new budgetary targets will instead provide the impetus and opportunity to ratchet up the reform level another few notches. “Staff came up with ideas before, but it was said: ‘No, that’s too far’,” he recalls. “Well, those ideas are back.” ?

CV highlights
1959    Born in Jalpaiguri, north-eastern India
1981    Graduates from New College, Oxford with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics; begins an Overseas Development Administration fellowship in Botswana 
1984    Awarded an MA in Economics, and joins the ODA as a senior economic assistant 
1996    Moves to Treasury as a team leader in a spending directorate
1998    Founds the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office
2002    Becomes permanent secretary, Department for International Development
2007    Moves to MoJ as permanent secretary

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