Can the private sector reform whitehall?
One of the Coalition’s early actions was to put in place radical reforms to Whitehall boards. More non-executive directors are to be appointed, particularly with commercial experience, to galvanise departmental boards, utilising political and business leadership to drive up performance.
There are new Cabinet Office protocols for how the boards will work. Non-executives’ responsibilities will now involve the recruitment and appraisal of senior executives and succession planning.
Most radical is the power to recommend to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary a permanent secretary’s removal from his or her post. This is a last resort if non-executives judge they are an obstacle to effective delivery.
What it does, together with changing the chairing of board from Permanent Secretaries to Secretaries of State, is alter the dynamic between officials and ministers and their advisors.
What the government’s changes mean
The government is potentially changing non-executives’ roles from critical friends to government enforcers. This has implications for their relationships with permanent secretaries and officials.
The content and nature of discussions at boards will necessarily change. For this to work, officials will need to recognise the scale of the cultural shift and the behavioural changes needed.
The burden on the non-executives will also be considerable. Many will be on a steep learning curve as they come to their roles with little knowledge of Whitehall and the way it works.
The scheduling of boards also means they will have only a few days a year to exert their influence.
Why they must work
But it is important that this works. A descent into dysfunctionality when the coalition is pushing ahead with transformational change in the way the public sector operates would be disastrous.
That is why work needs to be put in hand to enable the new boards to quickly become effective. This will require both sides to learn from each other as they move towards a workable synthesis.
The government’s expectations of boards need to be clarified in terms of roles, accountabilities and measures of success.
The similarities and differences between private sector versus public sector boards need to be teased out. It should not be assumed that what will work in one will necessarily work in the other. However each can certainly learn from the other.
The Institute’s research into building better boards will be published soon and will hopefully contribute to this debate.
Civil Service World: Call for non-exec inductions (PDF, 117KB)