Interview: Dave Penman

Written by Matt Ross on 1 November 2012 in Interview
Interview

While new FDA general secretary Dave Penman is a very different character from his predecessor, he tells Matt Ross, the union remains unchanged – but the government’s ever-tougher line demands a more robust response

Jonathan Baume, the previous leader of the FDA union, was a silver-haired, grammar school-educated Yorkshireman who went to Oxford, enjoys jazz, and belongs to the National Trust. Dave Penman, its new chief, is a towering Scot who, aged 18, followed his mother and sister into a civil service job in the Glasgow-overspill new town of Cumbernauld; his interests are crime fiction, theatre and Partick Thistle FC.

No surprise then that some people thought Penman’s tenure, which began in July, might herald a toughening of the FDA’s approach. “If you’re an overweight, working class Scot, right, you look more like what people would see as a typical union general secretary rather than an FDA general secretary – so I think there have been some assumptions made about that,” Penman says. But “you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between myself and Jonathan in terms of our approach to trade unionism”; he insists that his appointment “does not signal any step change” in the union’s attitude.

Nonetheless, in a small union, the general secretary’s personality plays a huge role in shaping its public presence; and Penman is a very different character from Baume. This is also, of course, a very different era: the senior civil service (SCS) grew by a quarter during Baume’s tenure, while during Penman’s it’s set to shrink by at least that proportion. “Our members haven’t changed,” he points out, “but inevitably as times get more difficult, perhaps people are looking for something a bit more robust as a response to the challenges that they’re facing.”

The challenges confronting the FDA’s 19,000 members – mainly comprising the SCS plus highly-skilled specialists such as lawyers, statisticians and diplomats – include a pay freeze, large-scale redundancies, pension cuts, tighter accountability to ministers, and a review of terms & conditions. People are having to work longer and longer hours, says Penman – something that’s harder to accept when “there’s this subtext of criticism about the capability and performance of the civil service, and in particular the SCS.” Those criticisms – voiced by the PM and DPM, among others – have characterised the civil service as inefficient, bureaucratic and resistant to coalition policies; but in Penman’s view, SCS are in fact “very committed to the job they do – and that’s why the sort of criticism they’re getting from government really has quite a significant impact on them.”

That impact is already becoming evident, Penman warns, as the SCS’s best and brightest head for the exit. “Anecdotally, we’re being told that in a number of departments, where there is clearly a better market [for people’s skills among private sector employers], they’re losing people and unable to attract them,” he says. And when the economy finally begins to grow again, he believes, the trickle of key departures could become a flood. The Cabinet Office’s own research has found that civil servants could earn more in the private sector, he argues. “What’s going to happen when the economy starts to turn round? When people say: is this what the future’s going to hold? No pay increase for years, and all the criticism and the pressure and the responsibility and being blamed every time something goes wrong?”

The coalition is closing its eyes to the danger of a huge brain drain, Penman believes: “It’s something the government is just not thinking about, because it’s a mantra just now about austerity, and therefore trying to think about longer-term rewards, longer-term careers, is just not something that they’re prepared to engage in.”

Et tu, Francis?
Penman appears to be particularly stung by the recent attacks on the SCS by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who first claimed that permanent secretaries have been deliberately obstructing the delivery of coalition policies (see p1, CSW 3 October), then refused to engage with the union over a Cabinet Office-led review of civil service terms & conditions (see news, p3). The union has “welcomed the fact that we have a minister in there who’s engaged on civil service issues, whereas if you look at the previous government, we had 12 ministers for the civil service,” says Penman, acknowledging that Maude “has defended the civil service quite well at times”; he’s probably thinking of instances when the Treasury wanted to take a tougher line on pensions reform, or when departed special adviser Steve Hilton argued noisily for the Civil Service Reform Plan to set out radical proposals for change.

Maude’s claim that permanent secretaries are blocking policies, however, is “ill-judged”, says Penman, and may “come back to haunt him.” There’s a simple explanation for why some ministers are blaming the civil service for slow policy delivery, he argues: the mid-term blues. “A few years into government, ministers find that what made a good policy in opposition is actually a bit more difficult and complex. They’re getting advice from the civil service that actually this isn’t simple, or they’ve made choices about resources and don’t have the resources to do it – and they don’t like those kind of answers,” he says. “So inevitably they find themselves getting challenged about why they’re not delivering things they set out in opposition, and it’s convenient to blame the civil service for that.”

Penman ridicules the idea that “if a permanent secretary refused to implement a policy, [Maude] wouldn’t deal with that.” The official would be rapidly disciplined and sacked, he says; so “there are ways of dealing with that: what you don’t do is start making public speeches about them, because that just denigrates the entire workforce”.

“Show me the secretary of state who’s cowering in the face of a permanent secretary who’s refusing to implement policy,” he adds. “I do not recognise that as the power dynamic that takes place in government.”

Poisonous cures
Penman firmly rejects the government’s preferred solutions to the perceived problem of obstructive officials, which involve making SCS more directly answerable to ministers through their targets and appraisals. “Do we think we’re going to get better policy by having people who are simply going to say ‘yes’ to a politician rather than explaining why that is very difficult and complex?”, he asks. “Either you want people who know what they’re doing, or you want people who share the same political beliefs.” There is “a bit of a danger”, he adds, that the government’s reforms will favour the latter. (See news, p1, 3 October.)

He’s just as hostile to the attempts by Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge to make civil servants more directly accountable to select committees. “I don’t think there’s any huge or urgent need for reform” of civil servants’ accountability to Parliament, he says, arguing that Hodge’s attempts to hold officials more closely to account ignore both civil servants’ accountability through their employers’ performance and appraisal systems, and the constraints that prevent them from publicly blaming poor decisions on ministers (see news, p3). Asked whether he thinks Hodge doesn’t realise how much her approach undermines the existing constitutional arrangements, Penman replies: “Whether she knows or not, I don’t think she’s necessarily interested.” The PAC chair is grandstanding to make a name for herself, he argues: PAC’s approach is “not about good government, not about good policy; it’s about people’s own political ambitions and their own political ends. And I think that is what makes that relationship
pretty difficult.”

The centre cannot hold
On the government’s plans to strengthen central management of the SCS – something signalled in the summer’s Civil Service Reform Plan – Penman is again sceptical; though this time, his objections are practical rather than principled. Labour had similar ideas, he says: “Government always says there’s a value in the senior management cadre of the civil service moving between departments; moving between policy and operational goals; getting experience outside the civil service. But all of that requires active management and that, I think, is where it falls down.”

The FDA likes the idea of more central coordination, says Penman; it could address the problems around, for example, finding a suitable role for people returning from secondments. “Ask any SCS what their experience was of secondment outside the civil service, and they’ll tell you they were abandoned,” he complains. “They gained all this fantastic experience, and when they came back they were put in whatever job was available.” He also praises Maude’s current reforms to the Fast Stream graduate programme: “It looks like a very positive response, and perhaps that will be a bit of a template,” he says.

However, he points out that it would be “very resource-intensive” to centrally manage the career development and deployment of SCS; what’s more, “you need to drive a different behaviour between government departments, and you need to incentivise departments so they’re going to benefit.” In the end, Penman believes, no government has so far had the money or willpower to “overcome the structural blockages” and create a sufficiently strong central HR function.

Shooting Olympians
So Penman sees this aspect of the reform plan as well-meaning but ill-fated; other elements, however, he condemns wholeheartedly. The government has told departments to identify the poorest 10 per cent of performers within each grade, providing them with more support – but “to assume that in any working population, 10 per cent are incapable is just a consultant’s myth,” says Penman: after all, SCS are “people who’ve worked their way up, through being capable, to get to the most senior levels of an organisation.”

“Look”, he says, “if you took 10 Olympic sprinters and told them you were going to shoot whoever came last in the 100m, you’d be shooting one of them. Somebody’s got to come last; that doesn’t mean they ain’t running fast.” Arbitrarily picking a proportion of people for special measures is “lazy management” and “organisations just work around it” – when Labour tried the same thing, he says, employers simply put new SCS recruits into the ‘must improve’ box. What’s more, “it has a hugely demoralising effect. You’re talking about people who manage big organisations, and they know this is nonsense; it’s an insult to their intelligence, and I think it has the absolutely opposite effect from improving performance.”

If people are worried about organisations’ performance, Penman suggests, they should look at all the experienced civil servants leaving via redundancy programmes. “Given the scale of the exits, [employers] can’t be very selective about who goes,” he says; departments can’t lose a quarter of their senior officials “without losing some of their capability,” and many have not “worked out where they are now, what they are left with, in terms of the capability of their staff.”

Pragmatic objections, not political ones
These job losses are, of course, a result of the government’s austerity drive – which is fiercely opposed by other public sector unions, including Penman’s former employer the PCS. The FDA, though, takes a “fiercely politically neutral” line, says Penman: after all, “our members quite often do very sensitive political jobs,” and “it would be anathema to them to be part of a union that takes a partisan and party political view of an issue.” The FDA, he says, respects the government’s right to decide the size of the civil service; though it does argue that people need the tools for the jobs they’re being asked to do, and fights for strategic investments that don’t “challenge the government’s collective philosophy” – such as employing more HMRC tax experts to close legal loopholes.

Beyond the need to avoid exposing its members to accusations of political partisanship, there’s another reason why the FDA prefers to avoid direct confrontations with government: its pragmatism. “We are a pragmatic union, and that pragmatism is our strength,” says Penman. “It gets us more; we achieve more for our members. The idea that the more industrial unrest you produce, the more you’ll achieve, I don’t think is demonstrated.” Success must be judged on “the difference we’ve made”, he says; and he’s quite content if that difference is achieved “through dialogue and engagement rather than industrial action.”

Asked whether he’s thinking of the PCS’s successful judicial review of the redundancy reforms that had been agreed between most unions and the last government – a PCS victory that successfully killed the agreement, clearing the way for the coalition to unilaterally impose a less generous settlement – Penman avoids directly criticising his fellow unionists. “What is really important is that unions make sure that their actions result in their members being in a better place, not a worse place; and the test is what is the outcome,” he says. “It’s up to other unions and their members to determine whether they were well served by their own union.”

Strike while the turnout’s hot
However, he does point out that when the FDA polled its members on whether to strike against the government’s pension plans, it had a 54 per cent turnout – because, he says, “we were representing and engaging our members in the issues and they could see that, when we asked them to take action, it was important that we did so. And that is about us being able to demonstrate what we’re achieving.” Lower turnouts give union leaders “a message about how in touch they are with their members,” he says, mentioning the figure of 16 per cent – a turnout experienced by the Royal College of Nursing in its February pensions strike vote.

So Penman will always take great care to carry his members with him in any dispute with government, and to steer well clear of anything that could be seen as party political. His careful pragmatism, however, is likely to be tested if the current pattern of escalating tensions between ministers and senior officials continues. On one side, he’ll see more of his members leaving government altogether. “Very senior members have said to me: ‘I could go and do something else’,” he recalls. “Some of the most capable people will look about and say: ‘Do you know what? I could get better pay. I could have less responsibility; less interference.’ And I think that is what people increasingly will start to do: they’ll walk.”

On the other side, perceptions that the government is relentlessly ratcheting up the pressure on civil servants are pushing the FDA towards a more radical line – something clearly signalled by the union’s very public frustration over the current review of terms & conditions. Maude’s claims “about permanent secretaries blocking government policy fiercely dejected our members,” he says, “because absolutely in their very fabric is the principle of an impartial, permanent civil service whose job it is – yes – to speak truth to power and give the best advice possible; but also to serve the government of the day.” As Penman’s members become more frustrated by the constant drip-feed of politicians’ criticisms, more angry about the continued degradation of pay and benefits, more resentful of the government’s efforts to give ministers more direct control of officials, it’s likely that the FDA will have to harden its line.

A union of senior managers and technical specialists is never going to be a hotbed of radicalism, and nor will it oppose for the sake of opposing. “We’ll engage where we need to engage, and we’ll challenge where we need to challenge. And we’ll make those choices depending on what delivers something for our members,” says Penman.

Nonetheless, it seems that battle lines are, slowly, being drawn. “We live in more difficult times,” he concludes. “We will be robust with a purpose.”

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