By Matt.Ross

15 Jul 2013

PASC chair Bernard Jenkin is highly critical of aspects of the civil service – but he’s sympathetic to civil servants themselves, and earlier this month an audience of officials gave his arguments a warm reception. Matt Ross reports.

For an experienced Tory parliamentarian, Bernard Jenkin – an MP for 20 years, and the chair of the Public Administration Select Committee – sounded almost iconoclastic as he told a Civil Service Live audience about the ludicrous dynamics in our political system. Take the public spending round, he said: “Every year, this grinding, macho, silverback gorilla process, absorbing so much political and senior management effort.” This “great ballet, great stand-off” is “very destructive of time and energy and long-term perspective,” he pointed out, “and I wonder what the Treasury’s role really should be in helping lead government, because this is a very old-fashioned way of doing it.”

Civil service accountability is another dysfunctional element of our constitutional settlement, said Jenkin: the Armstrong Memo, which insists ministers “decide what information should be made available” when their officials come before select committees, “does not just look a little out of date,” he argued. “Its attitudes are archaic and its strictures on civil servants are absurd.”

Given open data, transparency and an ever-more voracious media, Jenkin warned, public service “failures are going to be far more regularly exposed” – yet ministers’ ability to control select committees’ access to officials limits MPs’ ability to examine these weaknesses when they come to light. “It is becoming the fashion to name and shame public officials who fail”, he warned; the risk is “that we will see more ministers – and indeed more senior civil servants under pressure from the media and politicians – dumping on their officials whenever something goes wrong, rather than accepting their share of the responsibility.”

What’s more, Jenkin argued, whilst these days failures within government are more quickly exposed to public scrutiny, the civil service lacks the culture and incentives to identify and tackle emerging problems before they cause disaster. Such internal whistleblowing requires people to “feel that they are going to be supported from above,” he said; instead, “those who do know what is wrong feel unable to tell those in authority the truth.”

Perhaps, Jenkin suggested, ministers’ frustration at slow delivery is rooted in the problem that “departments and agencies believe they are being asked to deliver the impossible, but there is not an atmosphere in which problems and challenges can be properly explained and understood by those who determine policy.” Hence people avoid becoming responsible for projects that they see as doomed; and, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, those unloved schemes die for want of leadership.

The “narrative which has formed about Whitehall – that there are serious problems with the civil service… and that ministers and their special advisers have to micromanage projects themselves to get things done” – suggests a need for “fundamental change” in the civil service, Jenkin argued. And asked by your correspondent whether that narrative might not simply reflect the dominance of small-state, Thatcherite attitudes among 2010-intake Tory MPs, inexperienced ministers and broadsheet reporters, he suggested that this change in the political environment only increases the need for reform. “The whole question about looking at the future of the civil service is about exploring the context within which the civil service has to operate,” he said. “And you’ve described one of the contexts.”

For Jenkin, the big question is: “How is the civil service going to adapt to this new era of openness and transparency and open data, where the glare of publicity is increasingly going to be shone into all the nooks and crannies of every government department, and all those previously private relationships are becoming exposed?” In his view, our current system is so broken that it needs a thorough overhaul – and that process should begin with the creation of a joint parliamentary committee to research, analyse and debate the civil service’s role and, thus, its shape.

Tory MPs, who tend to trust our institutions and distrust radical reforms, are rarely this ready to consider root and branch reform of central elements of the British government. But asked whether he’s concerned about the risks of meddling with the established system, Jenkin made clear his belief that it can no longer cope with a dramatically changed world. “I’m a Conservative, so my mantra is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he replied. “The only reason you change things is to keep them as they are. But there comes a point where an institution badly needs to change.”

Changing the civil service, as Jenkin is well aware, is no easy task. All too often “the stone goes into the pond, and then the ripples close over the splash and equilibrium is restored,” he said. “This is a fantastically strong and resilient service: just imagine if you could harness that to produce the changes you want, rather than having ministers desperately trying to change things – and then, as soon as the minister’s been spat out, the system reverting to type.”

In Jenkin’s view, the Civil Service Reform Plan is much too modest in its aspirations. “It is an action plan, not a strategic document,” he said in his plenary speech. “It does not set out an overall analysis of what is going wrong, and why things go wrong, or an overall declaration of strategic intent… It does not even ask the fundamental question of what the civil service is for.”

If reformers confine themselves to tinkering around the edges, Jenkin believes, the results will be twofold: the adoption of piecemeal changes whose full implications have not been closely thought through; and a tendency for officials to resort to workarounds that evade the problems without solving them.

An example of the former, he said, is “this new idea which seems to be emerging about ministers appointing much larger private offices. This could lead to quite big knock-on changes in the relationship between ministers and officials… but is just changing the way we appoint people at the top of the civil service really going to change its nature?”

As an example of the latter, Jenkin cited MoD chief of defence materiel Bernard Gray’s plans to put 14,000 government staff under private sector management – a plan designed to free Gray from the constraints that come with civil service status. “The only reason I can see for doing so is that changing the terms and conditions of civil servants is too complicated and too challenging,” Jenkin said. “He’s come up with a very inventive and possibly sensible solution to get around the problem, but why not address that problem head-on instead?”

Jenkin is clearly no defender of the existing civil service structures and processes – but his critique is sympathetic to the officials working within those flawed systems, and his audience responded well. Asked whether they agree that people are too afraid to highlight problems in some parts of the civil service, at least half of the audience raised their hands; and asked whether – like Jenkin – they see a need for a “big think about how government operates… and what the civil service is for”, over a third agreed.

To equip our governance structures for today’s world, Jenkin argued, we’ll need to dramatically improve training and HR; give civil servants the authority and support that encourages and enables them to take responsibility; and strengthen leadership. “If we can’t grow the right leadership in the civil service, nothing else will go right; and just deciding to appoint them differently is unlikely to change their character, aptitudes and attitudes,” he said. Above all, he believes, an increasingly open world demands a far more open civil service: a much less heirachical organisation, in which staff feel licensed to highlight failing projects and challenge poor decisions.

“The public is very good at tolerating risk when there is evidence that the risk is well managed,” Jenkin argued. “And when the public appreciates that trust exists within the system, they’re far more likely to trust the system itself.” To become better at managing risk, he believes, the civil service must first create an atmosphere of mutual trust – one in which people have faith in their leaders, and feel free to speak. “What the public senses at the moment is that in many parts of public life, that trust does not exist within the system,” he concluded. “And if the people running the system don’t seem to trust each other, how can we expect the public to trust it?”

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