Morgan: govt ‘bedevilled by trust issues’

The relationship between ministers and the civil service must improve and both groups’ accountability must be clarified, Dame Gillian Morgan, the retiring permanent secretary of the Welsh Assembly Government, has told CSW.

By Joshua.Chambers

27 Jul 2012

The greatest current challenge for the civil service, she said, is “getting a proper and appropriate relationship between civil servants and ministers. You just have to read the newspaper briefings to know that it’s not as healthy as it should be.”

The relationship is “still bedevilled by trust issues, which run both ways, and it’s still bedevilled by a lack of clarity over accountability,” she added. “The strength of relationship is not there, but that is at the heart of good and effective organisations.”

On the topic of accountability, Morgan called for a broader discussion of the issue, stating that “everybody’s got a different view about the relationship and the role,  and I don’t think we’re teasing that out as effectively as we might. The civil service reform plan is a very good start, but it is not sufficient to do this and I don’t think anybody would pretend it is.”

The reform plan suggests giving ministers a stronger say in the appointment of permanent secretaries, making perm secs more accountable for project delivery, and allowing select committees to summon former accounting officers back to answer for their time in post.

Morgan highlighted anonymous ministerial press briefings attacking the civil service: “It’s very difficult to work in a world where every time you pick up a paper you see uncertainty. The key role of leaders in organisations is to bring certainty to debates.”

On the topic of civil service reform, she warned that the debate on better performance should not just focus on the best and worst performers: “It’s very easy to be seduced into worrying about the top and bottom performers, but if you kept the top and bottom as it is and could get more discretionary effort from the 80 per cent in between, actually we would do far more.”

She also said that the civil service has “issues to do with pace. Having come from a delivery organisation externally, I’ve been slightly numbed by the difference in timescales around things” – although she stressed that people should be “really proud to work” in the civil service.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Ministers and civil servants continue to work well together to deliver reforms across a wide range of issues. The plan we published last Tuesday... is the first step of a continuing programme of reform.”

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