MPs warn of 'fractured' relationship between perm secs and ministers

Examining relationships between ministers and permanent secretaries will be key to civil service reform, select committee says as it highlights concerns over government’s capability to deliver Brexit


By Suzannah.Brecknell

02 May 2017

The relationship between Whitehall permanent secretaries and ministers is a “key fracture point” in the civil service, according to research carried out for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Henley Business School professor Andrew Kakabadse conducted private interviews with current and former civil servants, ministers and advisers as part of PACAC’s enquiry into the work of the civil service.

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He found that that “the critical fracture point in the civil service structure is the minister/perm sec relationship whereby ministers emerge as not making best use of their civil servants. A consequence of this is a further fracture between policy generation and delivery".

The committee also received evidence from former first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments, David Normington, who said he is “concerned at what I see as a slow deterioration over time in the trust between ministers and civil servants.”

PACAC published the “emerging findings” of its civil service inquiry on Tuesday, setting out the themes that it hopes its successor committee will pick up in the next parliament.

The MPs, who had to conclude the inquiry early prior to next month’s general election, argued that examining the relationship between ministers and civil servants, and how each group is held accountable to parliament, must be a “cornerstone” to future inquiries on the civil service.

“We would strongly encourage a successor committee, working in cooperation with government, to take forward our initial findings in this area for further investigation,” says the report.

“In particular we would invite any successor committee to consider closely whether the Haldane doctrine [of ministerial accountability]  aids or impedes accountability to Parliament.”

The report also raises concerns about the civil service’s capability to delivery Brexit, poor use of specialist knowledge in the civil service, and ministers’ lack of understanding of the workings of the system.

If ministers do not understand the civil service, the report says, they misinterpret implementation delays as as “civil servants acting obstructively”, rather than exploring the real problems. The MPs suggest there could be a training programme for ministers and aspiring ministers to give them insight into the civil service.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman described the report as “a welcome addition to mounting evidence that the government is failing to match commitments with the resources it provides to the civil service”

He said:  “Particularly welcome is the report’s recommendation that, in relation to Brexit, the government should be pressed ‘to ensure that the civil service is appropriately skilled, resourced and focused to meet the significant challenges that it faces both over the course of the negotiations and following the UK’s exit from the European Union’.”

The report noted that prioritization is a key challenge for civil servants. Professor Kakabadse’s research indicated that: “Unique to the civil service is the fracture point of lack of prioritisation. Too many projects, programmes of activity, policy delivery commitments are being pursued simultaneously with little chance of successful fruition.”

Penman said:  “This reflects the experience of FDA members – those on the frontline of delivering the government’s agenda – only a fifth of whom believe their department has sufficient resources to meet the demands of the year ahead.”

He added: “Facing up to the many challenges that lie ahead means that more than ever, Britain needs a strong civil service. The general election provides an opportunity for a new government, of whatever colour, to think again about the demands placed on the civil service – and the resources needed to meet those challenges.”

Professor Kakabadse’s research also highlighted the impact of continuing public sector pay restraint.

In his initial findings for the committee, Kakabadse writes: “Additionally, remuneration is increasingly seen as a concern with many civil servants lower in the hierarchy struggling to realise a satisfactory life style. 

“Perm secs report that they are deeply conscious of the remuneration challenges middle and lower civil servants face and try to address such a concern through displaying sensitivity to the problems confronting civil servants in the delivery of their duties.”

Exploring the capability of the civil service, PACAC found that although there is plenty of specialist expertise in the civil service, it is not being used effectively.

“There was no suggestion that departments lacked subject specialists, but rather, that such expertise was not valued highly enough within the civil service,” the report stated.

MPs suggest that a future inquiry should examine whether ministers feel the advice they receive is “grounded in sufficient subject expertise”, and “whether the civil service place a high enough premium on subject expertise; and whether the balance right between those who bring expertise and those have a broader, more generalist perspective.”

MPs were also worried about the civil service’s ability to think strategically – a concern which was also raised by its predecessor the Public Administration Select Committee.

“We remain concerned that these issues have not yet been addressed within government, and we found it noteworthy that Sir John Chilcott, in his evidence to the Liaison Committee in November 2016, suggested that the civil service lacks the capability it needs in strategic thinking and analysis,” MPs say.

They suggest that limited resources and an “aversion to engaging external expertise” could be contributing to this lack of capability.

The committee also noted that, since government now outsources more services than it delivers, contract management skills must be improved and there should be greater clarity on who will be held accountable for the failure of services delivered by a third party.

Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: "We will look at this report in detail and respond in due course."

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