Sunday, 21 June 2009

You can't get the staff these days

Expenses claims redacted to the point of invisibility make the administrative facilities at Parliament as much an embarrassment as the financial antics of some MPs.

Sir Stuart Bell, Chair of the House Finances and Services Committee, insists the Fees Office was asked to limit the cover-up of MPs' claims to the minimum necessary for security.

In my view, the excessive caution shown has more to do with the skills of the staff assigned than with deliberate intent to be obscure.

Either the staff could not be trusted to apply judgement to their task or they could not be trusted even to seek advice. So they were given blanket instructions to black out almost all sources of identification.

To follow this up with the recall of just-published details of cash repayments by penitent MPs makes the Fees Office seem a genuine Whitehall farce.

Much as I'm suspicious of the political orthodoxy of France's École Nationale d'Administration, its consistent product might provide some training lessons for Britain's civil service.

Britain's Civil Service College was first created by Harold Wilson in the late 1960s, together with a new Civil Service Department.

This was a result of the Fulton Committee report, which recommended moving beyond the Victorian 'Northcote–Trevelyan' concept of independent generalists in the civil service, and the 1918 Haldane model of a partnership of authority and expertise between ministers and servants, to the recruitment of specialised talent that could address the needs of a modern economy.

It suggested such specialists could nevertheless work across departments where similar skills were needed, thus increasing career opportunities. Individual government departments were also to be brought closer into the recruitment process so recruitment and training would better match actual needs.

Three new training centres were established under the Civil Service College – at Sunningdale, Edinburgh and a Centre for Administrative Studies in London. By 1970, 200,000 civil servants were receiving departmental training and 25,000 were engaged in external courses of varying length.

Wilson's Civil Service Department, while recognising government needed skills used by modern business and industry, ensured central management training retained the ethos of a unified service.

Since then, various half-hearted or semi-detached attempts to reform the Civil Service have been made.

Margaret Thatcher introduced the report Improving Management in Government, which resulted in considerable devolving to governmental agencies or quangos. John Major presented Continuity and Change, which created a Civil Service Code. The Conservative period resulted in shifting a previous employment peak of 571,000 civil servants in 1977, to a low of 479,000 in 1999 (two years into NuLab's initial period of matching Tory budgets).

Since 2000, NuLab have overseen a plethora of civil service policy reviews. Initially this began under the still-ongoing Modernising Government Initiative. In 2002, Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull took over control with the message that he intended holding Permanent Secretaries to account for civil service reform and service delivery. This later shifted to the introduction of Performance Partnership Agreements with departments engaging in change programmes to meet purposes and priorities.

Sir Michael Lyons next presented a report in 2004, which called for 20,000 civil servants to move out of London to the regions. Then came the Sir Peter Gershon report, which recommended 84,000 civil service jobs be cut. This was to be accompanied by the merging of several agencies and departments and the effective re-centralisation of back office functions, procurement and IT.

Gordon Brown took up this efficiency programme and eventually cut a net 70,000 jobs, particularly affecting the DWP and the newly merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise departments. Most of these cuts came from back office administrative staff while the number of front line delivery staff was increased.

Nearly 75% of civil servants now work in four departments – DWP, Justice, MOD and Revenue & Customs. Reports by the national Audit Office in 2006 found departments were unable to demonstrate whether efficiency gains had actually been delivered or costs of personnel had simply been cut. The risk was that the efficiency programme could result in a drop in service quality.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) later in 2006 determined that the civil service was well known to be under-performing in its core functions. It said too much Whitehall activity was undermined "by its inability to work effectively across departmental boundaries; by a narrow skills-base; and under-developed leadership ... Performance is poorly managed, and poor performance too often goes unchecked."

The report added that ill-defined relations between civil servants and ministers resulted in "a ‘governance vacuum’ at the top of Whitehall: lines of accountability are confused and leadership is weak".

The IPPR recommended reform of the governance system of the civil service. This would make politicians responsible for ‘policy’ decisions and civil servants responsible for clearly defined ‘operational’ ones. Thus, both would be independently accountable to Parliament and the public, with clear demarcation of responsibilities. However, making civil servants legally accountable for decisions made by ministers is an issue that raises much debate.

The Labour government has been promising a new Civil Service Act for more than nine years. In 2004, a draft Civil Service Bill was published for consultation but no action followed. Gordon Brown, since becoming Premier, has said he will present a Civil Service Act. But the issues such an Act are likely to focus on are those of high principle – strengthening the impartiality of the Service, the power of Ministers to make appointments rather than on merit and the role and responsibilities of 'special advisers'.

The question of 'service delivery', as the jargon has it, remains one that is very much in the hands of government itself. National government objectives, and the ways each government deems they should be brought about, will always heavily influence the public's perception of the actual outcomes being delivered by our civil servants.

More reading, if you want it, here and the Draft Civil Service Bill here.

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