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

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 2 May 2017 in News

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

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."

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is Civil Service World's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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Norman Strauss (not verified)

Submitted on 2 May, 2017 - 18:58
I have a strong sensation of deja vu here, arising from my background training and experience in strategic marketing, branding and market research whilst employed by Unilever. In the world of marketing multinationals and their advertising agencies, way back in the 1960's and 1970's, the topic of client/agency relationships was worried over continuously. I always felt that this was encouraged - if not driven - by the advertising agencies; so as to get marketing clients to do more of their bidding, rather than solely to get better results for brand performance, satisfaction, reputation and sales. Above all, it was designed to put the advertising agencies in charge, in spite of the contractual position. Repeating this paragraph below, with substitute words, gives the following statement: __________________________________________ **In the world of ministers and their civil servants, way back in the 1960's and 1970's, the topic of minister and senior civil servant relationships was worried over continuously. I always felt that this was encouraged - if not driven - by the senior civil service; so as to get ministers to do more of their bidding, rather than solely to get better results for policy performance, citizen satisfaction, government reputation and party support. Above all, it was designed to put the senior civil service in charge, in spite of the constitutional position.** I find this altered paragraph fits my experience as a SPAD to MT in 1979 to 1982 (as does much more recent comment too) - but, to be fair, only when major radical proposals were made, not for normal everyday business which carried on as usual. I have used this historical example to make the point that a governing system which divides purpose setting, creative innovation, policy construction and strategy formation from the people who have to execute it breaks the supposedly united team before it starts. Thus it is doomed to be dysfunctional (or fractured) from the start. Why PACAC and its academic advisers persist in staying within a fractured legacy governing system in their thinking is beyond wonder. As for basing policy suggestions on researching the opinions of the fracturers in chief, what exactly is the point? A major resultant of this operational schism, is that opposition ministers assume that their future civil servants are being radical and continuously updating their skills and capabilities, so as to continue to stay at the leading edge of administration, strategic thinking and policy innovation. Whereas, in my view, the reality is that the values of "neutrality and objectivity" are used to imply that these tasks are political and thus beyond their remit. So the critical fracture ends up being the inability to be an effective administrator to support ministers in creating, achieving or adapting their objectives. I stress that I am talking about radical policy, strategy and innovation here, not yesterday's imitation of the approaches of others, by means of comparative analysis - which sounds impressive, but usually means copying the original work of others, which can now be evidenced!

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