Civil servant asked to do job – shock

16 September 2013

My twitter timeline was full this morning of people expressing surprise following a report in the FT (£) that Sir Jeremy Heywood has been asked to conduct a review of government policy on youth unemployment. The surprise is their surprise.

We have grown used to the idea that policy reviews should be done by anyone other than the Civil Service.

The FT suggested that a review of policy should have been undertaken by a minister – but then points out that, in a coalition, the question of which minister is fraught.  Would this be a Lib Dem review? Or a Conservative one? But even in the normal sort of coalition, a single party coalition, it is difficult to ask one minister to mark others’ performance. And that review would have to be supported by the Civil Service.

Others have suggested that it is strange that the Prime Minister has gone to an insider – rather than pick an external reviewer. Ministers do indeed have a strong revealed preference for borrowing the credibility of an external reviewer – usually a business person or academic. But the impact of their interventions is quite arbitrary and unstudied – and the impact is often more in the appointment than in any follow-through.  But it is hard to understand why they are assumed to be better placed to review government policy than someone with unrivalled policy experience inside the machine.

In Australia, the Prime Minister would have been able to ask the standing Productivity Commission – a Treasury arm’s-length body with significant internal analytic capacity – to have a look at the issue.  The New Zealanders have now copied that model. Under the last government, this might have been a subject to remit to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. But we don’t have that sort of standing capacity to call on in the UK.

The Cabinet Secretary is supposed to be the principal policy adviser to the Prime Minister. Successive postholders saw that role diminish under the last Labour government – turning instead to focus on management as the politicians made clear that they did not really want advice from the Civil Service on important policy issues. The advent of the ‘Heywood review’ could be taken as a sign of a reversion to the norm and a reassertion of faith in the ability of the Civil Service to produce policy advice useful to ministers. And now that it is in the public domain, might that mean that the review and the output will also be public?  That would be a step forward in the open policy making promised in the Civil Service Reform Plan last year, which the Cabinet Office is supposed to champion. And we have long argued that the centre of government should be much more interested in the quality effectiveness of policy being pursued in departments. Hopefully this will set a useful precedent.

The oddity is not in the fact of Sir Jeremy being asked to look at what the government might do to tackle youth unemployment. The real oddity is that we have reached a point where a top civil servant being asked to produce policy advice to ministers – something at the core of his job description – is news.

Further information

Opening up policy-making

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Comments (3)

  1. Dan Corry on 17 September 2013 at 11:01 am

    Good points Jill. Nevertheless if this is about policy (in a key area) rather than implementation, it is pretty unusual not to have a Minister in charge (or an external). Even more unusual to ‘announce’ that an official is doing such a review: presume Select Committees will now be free to call Jeremy to give evidence?

    In addition, this must be seen as a kick in the teeth for the Secretary of State and Perm Sec at DWP. Of course one can argue that many departments feed into youth unemployment (DfES, BIS etc) so is cross departmental. But I think one can read pretty clearly what the PM thinks of how DWP are doing in this decision!

  2. Jill Rutter on 17 September 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Final decisions will, of course, be taken by Ministers.

    But civil service should be there to advise on policy as well as implementation. Role of review should be to produce options for ministers to consider – collectively. Youth unemployement cuts across a range of depts. It was a feature of the last govt that they preferred others than CS to advise – which is why I htink you find it strange.

    I have no idea why it might be thought better to have an external do this. its what the civil service is paid to do. Would you prefer Adrian beecroft to come back? If it gets nowhere, then maybe an external review woudl be necessary – btu their track record is patchy at best.

    I agree that “announcement” is odd – but there isn’t a formal announcement as such that we could find.

  3. Richard Allen on 19 September 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Jill

    An interesting choice and, I agree, a tentative vote of confidence in the Civil Service’s ability to conduct such reviews. That said, it’s a choice that begs a number of questions. Though Sir Jeremy Heywood is highly intelligent & an experienced Whitehall operator, his knowledge of youth unemployment can only have come from briefings for Cabinet or senior cabinet committees. So presumably someone else is going to provide the expertise. If so, who? The choice of the Cabinet Secretary also makes me wonder whether the review is designed to come up with ideas and options, including “thinking the unthinkable”? Or to kill them off – and provide a “there is no alternative” type of response?

    My hope is that the review team – whoever they are – will get to speak to a range of young people seeking work/who’ve got work/people who are trying to get young people into work/employers/schools: i.e. people on the ground who have direct experience of what works and what doesn’t, what needs fixing and where. And they don’t do a couple of token visits, but go to a broad range of places so they get a rounded picture. Too often, one example is chosen as “best practice” and foisted on everyone in different situations. There are very complex issues involved here. A good review will help the UK make better use of the talent of its young people (vital as the population ages). A poor one will come up with simplistic solutions that play to the political nostrums of the day.

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