When is Whitehall not like a business? A response from PASC

6 February 2012

The view of James Page of IfG that Whitehall needs reform in order to meet the government's change agenda, is in line with that of PASC.  However, the perspective that PASC is driven by private sector thinking is simply not true.

The Civil Service today, unlike other private or public sector entities, must now meet the demand for four contrasting skill sets simultaneously.  The well established skills of policy advice to Ministers, management of public services, and contracting, outsourcing and procurement must be practiced in conjunction with the new skills which arise from the demands of ‘Big Society’ initiative: to act as facilitator and enabler of community and non-governmental activity.

PASC is advocating that the Civil Service must master organisational complexity, not emulate the private sector.  For this reason PASC highlights the need for outstanding leadership in order to meet contrasting stakeholder demands.  This drives our concern about the importance of the role of the Head of the Civil Service.  He must be able to drive far greater co-operation and team work within and across the delivery departments and particularly between the delivery departments and the heart of government.  Civil Service top management must take a broader view in order to provide value for service and minimise organisational disaggregation.  The business of Whitehall is to meet stakeholder demands in an integrated manner and to ensure the highest possible performance for service delivery.

In contrast, the vast majority of private sector organisations today focus on one criteria – cost management.  Reducing costs to the exclusion of all else destroys value.  PASC is in the business of enhancing value through encouraging public servants to exercise their leadership in innovative ways that makes a difference.

Relying on the traditional skills of working through a federation of segregated departments, each accountable to the Secretary of State, means that the Government’s agenda may be held back as a result of defending localised interests.

It is up to the senior leadership team to examine how to integrate their ways of working across the Civil Service in order to make that extra difference that no-one else can.  They should be advising all ministers, not least the Prime Minister, of the indispensable importance of this, for without political leadership, any change initiative will become dissipated.


Further information

Bernard Jenkin is MP for Harwich and North Essex and currently chairs the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.

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Comments (3)

  1. Antony on 6 February 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Similar points on structures and localised interests were made at http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/when-policies-collide/

  2. James Page on 7 February 2012 at 5:22 pm

    PASC has put its finger right on the pulse of one of the most important questions facing Whitehall: how to lead the Civil Service towards a bright future in which it will be much smaller and work in fundamentally different ways?

    The Chair’s views – set out above – are clearly right in a number of areas too:

    • Whitehall badly needs to develop new skills and capabilities as its traditional skill set is not going to be fit for its future purpose
    • Cutting cost alone is absolutely the wrong approach when savings alone are prioritised over value
    • Current accountabilities of departments to their Secretary of State represent a major obstacle to realising the Coalition’s priorties and to making the big cross-departmental savings, and
    • Connecting to ministers is vital if reform is not simply to dissipate.

    I doubt there is much contention about the first two points. The interesting debate between PASC and the Government centres on the last two. PASC are pushing for greater central leadership by Cabinet Office and Francis Maude, while the Government, in its official response, has broadly argued that the Minister for the Cabinet Office should not micro-manage reform and that the levers at the ‘centre’ simply don’t exist to apply any real control in any case.

    With no current prospect of changing the fundamental tenets of ministerial accountability, the new leadership at the top of the Civil Service needs to find new ways of bringing together senior colleagues to work jointly on downsizing and transforming how Whitehall works as a whole. Where Sir Gus O’Donnell made a huge leap by bringing colleagues together to act in a more collegiate manner, Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood need to go a step further and move to a more active ‘corporate’ form of leadership across internal Civil Service boundaries.

    From our experience of working with departments, ministers currently tend to be permissive but are rightly not engaged in the detail of reform in their departments. Connecting in to the politics is vital but there is also a need for the Civil Service to take greater ownership of its future direction and health. It needs to do this collectively with shared vision and leadership.

    If PASC can continue to challenge the leaders of the Civil Service on their ability to do this it will be at the heart of an historic shift in Whitehall. PASC’s inquiries also reflect a broader change in Parliament, which is increasingly bringing much greater scrutiny to the thorniest and most challenging issues facing the Civil Service. Having an open debate at all is a major advance and PASC is touching on one of the critical issues.

  3. [...] programme of a shorter period. The answer is simple: Whitehall is not like a business – as Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee wrote for the Institute for Government. The delivery of public services is a damn sight more complex than trying to hit the bottom line as [...]

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