Kerslake: perm secs must encourage open feedback

Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, has rejected claims that structures within Whitehall are preventing open debates about government policy, and emphasised the need for senior leaders to encourage an “open culture in their department where people feel able to raise issues and concerns about progress”.


By Winnie.Agbonlahor

19 Sep 2013

Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), last week told CSW that across “the whole of Whitehall” there is an “inability to learn the lessons of failure and speak openly and truthfully to each other”, adding that “the system is failing to reform and govern itself effectively.”

However, Kerslake told CSW: “I don’t think it’s about structures. I think it is entirely about culture, confidence and remembering what one of our key duties as civil servants is.

“In my experience, good senior managers welcome honest feedback from their staff and good ministers welcome feedback and challenge from their permanent secretaries.

“It is about saying ‘This is part of the deal; this is what we have to do, and if you don’t do it at the time that the problem occurs, the problems are likely to become bigger later’.”

Kerslake added that “clearly, permanent secretaries have an important role to ensure there is an open culture in their department where people feel able to raise issues and concerns about progress”.

When asked whether permanent secretaries should do more to encourage this more actively he said: “We could look into doing more of that. It varies from department to department, but most departments have a clear ambition to do that and this is also something we measure in our staff surveys.”

His comments come after the National Audit Office highlighted delivery problems in the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) flagship Universal Credit programme, which it said were partly down 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 DWP committee, criticised “an inability of ministers to admit there was anything going wrong” in the department. Robert Devereux, DWP permanent secretary, told a Public Accounts Committee hearing last week that a “push through mentality” among managers led to a failure to detect problems early enough.


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