Editorial: Any inquiry must be system-wide

Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, has been championing an inquiry into the future of the civil service – but former cabinet secretaries Lord Gus O'Donnell and Andrew Turnbull believe that any inquiry should also encompass politicians’ failures. CSW editor Matt Ross maps out a path to a very big think about our system of government

By Matt.Ross

05 Jun 2014

Nobody would claim our system of government is perfect. It makes all kinds of errors, and for all kinds of reasons – political, structural, capability and interpersonal problems show up amongst a host of others, with their basis in Whitehall, Westminster and beyond. 

Take Universal Credit. Some of its troubles are rooted in civil servants’ over-optimistic planning and their inappropriate application of ‘Agile’ methodologies; officials were perhaps too eager to deliver their ministers’ wishes. But other difficulties – most obviously the clashes between ministers, and the project’s disastrous turnover of SROs – were caused by the kind of problem best understood as personal, not personnel. 

Even in the West Coast Mainline debacle – the pin-up project among those who distrust civil servants – the investigation by Department for Transport non-exec Sam Laidlaw found causes in the politically-driven decision to squeeze consultancy spending whilst simultaneously laying off experienced staff and conducting a major reorganisation. Again, civil servants could be criticised for rushing too eagerly to deliver a flawed plan – but in that case they need more influence, not more lambasting.

As Lords O’Donnell and Turnbull (pictured above left and centre) point out in our Special Report, any inquiry into the civil service can only examine a narrow section of the problems affecting government – and would, therefore, miss a broad section of the solutions. It could even make things worse. An analysis of policy failures focusing on the civil service’s role would provide ammo for those who want ministers to have greater powers to hire and commission. But if that weakened the civil service’s own policymaking capabilities or its ability to challenge politicians, delivery would suffer: reformers would – as Oxford professor of governance Ngaire Woods says – be “digging your own grave in policy terms.”

This is not to say there’s no need for a big think about our system of government; simply that a civil service inquiry - as advocated by PASC chair Bernard Jenkin (pictured above right) is not a big enough think. The issues such an inquiry could address have largely been tackled in the Civil Service Reform Plan; and few argue with its prescriptions on topics such as skills and capabilities, career development, leadership and management structures. Of the issues picked out in our Special Report, that only leaves the relationship between ministers and civil servants, the structure of government, and the job descriptions of the highest officials – and these topics take us firmly back into big think territory. 

Here, there are more subjects to add. How can government improve its ability to tackle long-term issues such as climate change and an ageing population, when the policy solutions are so painful and the political rewards so marginal? How can we better work across policy fields to deliver an over-arching strategy, enabling government to act more holistically and cooperatively whilst respecting ministers’ democratic mandates and the Treasury’s responsibility to balance the budget? The answers to these questions bring in not just ministers and Parliament, but also the electorate – and could, as Lord O’Donnell points out, help address the political malaise so evident in last week’s election results. But no civil service inquiry could find those answers; that would require a new government, elected with a mandate to ask the big questions, to oversee a wide-ranging examination of our whole political system. Its diagnosis might produce as much discomfort amongst politicians as within the civil service; but if it helped to re-engage our disillusioned electorate and re-equip our government for the modern era, that price would be well worth paying.

Now all we need is a party of politicians brave enough to ask these questions, and as ready to take criticism as they are to give it. Any takers?

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk


See also: News: O'Donnell and Turnbull suggest inquiry into politicians, not civil servants

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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