Civil servants ‘unable to speak truth to power,’ warn top MPs

Civil service structures are preventing open debates about government policy, and stopping senior officials speaking truth to power, two select committee chairs have told Civil Service World.

By CivilServiceWorld

11 Sep 2013

Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), said that some parts of government are in “desperate failure,” because “implementation takes place much further down the food chain than policy making, so there are long and tortuous lines of communication, which prevent the truth getting back to the people making policy.”

Across “the whole of Whitehall” there is an “inability to learn the lessons of failure and speak openly and truthfully to each other” he said, adding that “the system is failing to reform and govern itself effectively.”

Jenkin’s comments come as a report last week from the National Audit Office highlighted delivery problems on the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship Universal Credit scheme, partly attributing them to “a fortress mentality” and “a culture of good news reporting that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge.”

Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Commons’ Work and Pensions committee, criticised “an inability of ministers to admit there was anything going wrong” in the department.

Asked whether it’s currently possible for DWP civil servants to “speak truth to power,” Begg told CSW: “I think it’s difficult, and the attitude is set from the top. That’s part of being a manager: your staff are empowered to tell you what exactly is going on – to tell you the truth”.

Jenkin also expressed scepticism about a civil service reform that is intended to improve policy delivery, and provide ministers with more support. Speaking about the plan to expand the size of private offices and allow ministers to appoint their staff, he said his committee is “far from persuaded that the creation of separate enclaves of ministerial appointees, who would owe their first loyalty to ministers, would be a positive development.”

His concern was echoed by Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, who said: “The danger is that you have the minister surrounded by their loyal advisors, and on the other side you have people running policy and implementation, with each isolated from each other.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, warned that: “Some ministers might just appoint ‘yes men’ and become isolated from how successfully policy is being implemented on the ground.”
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said last week that “I see no reason why personally-appointed staff should provide less challenging advice,” adding that “our reforms will ensure ministers receive the most candid and honest advice.”

The PASC last week published a report calling for a Parliamentary Commission to explore the future of the civil service.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The chairman of the committee has long made his preference for a Parliamentary Commission clear. We have never ruled this out, but our priority remains to implement our reform programme, which enjoys widespread support.”

See also: Editorial

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