Leadership in the Civil Service: Those that Can, Do Policy. Those That Can’t…..


Today (20 Jan 2012) the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published a scathing attack on the re-organisation at the top of the Civil Service that took place over Christmas.

For new readers: with the retirment of Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell his role was divided. A Troika now runs things: Jeremy Heywood as Cabinet Secretary; Bob Kerslake as Head of the Civil Service (and Permanent Secretary at Communities and Local Government) and Ian Watmore as Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. For 30 years these three roles were effectively combined in one person (latterly Gus O’Donnell) with a second Permanent Secretary rank running the day to day work of the Cabinet Office and a head of policy in No. 10 (under Gordon Brown this was also elevated to Perm Sec status).

Lost yet? Well you’ll be even further confused if you look at the “wiring diagram” that the Committee finally wrestled out of Government (page 12 of their report). It raises more quetions than it answers. Just an example – what does the (one way) arrow from the Cabinet Office to the Cabinet Secretary mean, when there’s also one to the CO perm sec and thru him/her to the Head of the Civil Service? Does it mean the CO has two (or maybe three) bosses?

What the Committee report shows is that there is almost universal contempt for these new arranegements amongst former heads of the Civil Service, academics (I was one of them) and commentators who gave evidence to the Committee. Apart from the people who’d proposed it, hardly anyone had a good word to say about the new set-up.

My own ‘take’ was based around the idea expressed in the title of this blog-post. About a decade ago a review of civil service “executive agencies” set up under the so-called ‘Next Steps’ programme was conducted. During the process of the review one Perm Sec uttered the immortal words “those that can do policy, those that can’t run agencies.” (This quote never made it into the published report, but believe me, it was real).

Ironically, this was exactly the problem that the 1988 ‘Next Steps’ report had identified (and the 1968 Fulton Report before it) identified: the Civil Service ‘mandarinate’ privileges ‘policy’ over management, implementation or delivery. Turning a good polciy phrase is more highl prized than actually delivering anything.

My criticism of the new set-up is that it institutionalises this set-up. Reading the table of ‘roles’ for the new head of the Civil Service (Kerslake) and Cabinet Secretary (Heywood) (PASC page 13) it is clear one is to ‘do’ implementation and the other ‘policy’. My written memo is at the back of the PASC report.

So universal was the attack on the new set-up that I’m told the 1st meeting of Perm Secs under the new ‘regime’, which took place last week, spent the whole two hours discussing “implementation” – led jointly by Heywood and Kerslake. More on this in another post.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Public Administration, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Leadership in the Civil Service: Those that Can, Do Policy. Those That Can’t…..

  1. shodanalexm says:

    It seems entirely appropriate that this most unthinking of governments has failed to learn one of the starkest – and simplest? – lessons available from past governance mistakes.

  2. Des McConaghy says:

    Yes Colin – but it will now probably be up to established credit rating agencies to monitor the operation and control of public services – so I am not sure what role is envisaged for a modern civil service. And you’ll remember that when New Labour introduced their Government Resources and Accounts Bill the basic idea was “to make government a better client for the private sector”; that and the general need to go about government in a more business-like way. Clearly, too, we did not then want parliament pouring over the actual performance measures or even a really serious role for public audit – especially (I now suppose) with reliable agencies such as Standard & Poor’s waiting in the wings. In short we have recently been living through a total transformation of our government – including our civil service. And so if a line is now to be drawn in the sand, the relevant questions are where .. and also by whom?! As old Archimedes once complained, “Give me the firm ground on which to stand and I will move the earth”! But my bet, as a bottom line, is at least to use every possible opportunity to promote and encourage transparency – regardless of one’s position in our social or public service hierarchies, recalling perhaps Homer’s Ajax, battling in the mist imposed by stupid gods on a stupid war: “Kill us if it is your pleasure, but in daylight”!

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