A civil service inquiry could do some good – if it addresses long-term reform

20 January 2014

Before an inquiry is set up into the future of the Civil Service, it is crucial to determine who should be involved and what they should be looking at.

The main focus at present is on a Parliamentary Commission akin to the Banking Commission of both Houses which reported last year. That has been proposed by the Public Administration Committee, endorsed by the Commons Liaison Committee of chairs of select committees, and has now been backed by the majority of speakers in a Lords debate on January 16th on the Civil Service. But the Government, both ministers and civil service leaders, is not persuaded.

The Lords debate, initiated by Lord Hennessy, was a parade of twitter-length speeches (no more than three or four minutes long) from all five living former cabinet secretaries, ex-ministers, academics and various other authorities. Much was predictable: concern that the longstanding values of the Civil Service are being threatened by proposals on permanent secretary appointments and extended ministerial offices. Yet the extent of the worries cannot just be dismissed as ‘better in our time’ worries, even though little specific evidence was presented of actual, as opposed to feared, politicisation. There are real, and deeply felt, concerns about ministers not being presented with robust, impartial advice. And, as several peers said, the role of ministers should not be left out of any inquiry.

However, the debate was narrow. With rare exceptions, such as Lord Browne of Madingley, the Government’s lead non-executive director, there were few references to the deeper challenges facing the Civil Service and the traditional departmental model of Whitehall in providing public services within a continuing tight squeeze on budgets, and at a time of rapid technological change. Any inquiry must address these broader questions.

The Government believes that the focus should not now be on a further analysis of the Civil Service’s weaknesses but on implementing existing plans for reform. Baroness Hayter, who spoke for Labour, was cautious about an inquiry, saying her party was “open-minded” on the question. On this view, an inquiry now would risk being a distraction. That is a real risk, but it can be avoided if the focus is on the many longer-term challenges to the structure of Whitehall (addressed in a wide variety of Institute of Government reports), as well as lines of accountability. Moreover, as Lord Wilson of Dinton argued, the issues go beyond any particular party or even the government of the day.

It is, however, not clear that a Parliamentary Commission is the right route. Lord Turnbull, who was anyway sceptical about whether an inquiry would add much to performance, was clear that a review should not be carried out by Parliament as it is an insider to the argument with a vested interest. In his view, a review should be independent.

One possibility might be a hybrid review involving some parliamentarians but also outsiders – perhaps chaired by Lord Browne or another departmental non-executive director. It is vital to include the current generation of officials, advisers and those involved with government, rather than mainly a past one, on either the inquiry panel or as part of the review. And the terms of reference must view the Civil Service more broadly than senior ministers and officials to include government as a whole.

It is very hard for either MPs or peers to set up an inquiry without the consent of the Government. An ad hoc Lords committee set up for a session is possible but it is a second best option. Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Lib Dem minister replying, tried to leave the door open a little to further inquiries, saying the objection was to a vast or massive commission.

The present stand-off between Parliament and the executive is unsatisfactory in itself and for the Civil Service. An inquiry should not be set up for its own sake, but only if it promises to address longer-term questions not being publicly debated now, and only if it involves those most affected. On that basis, it could do some good.

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Comments (4)

  1. David Walker on 20 January 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Lord Turnbull … was clear that a review should not be carried out by Parliament as it is an insider to the argument with a vested interest.

    Peter, you appear to quote this argument approvingly. But it’s nonsensical. Its logic is that parliament can never review anything because, as a legislature, it has an ‘interest’, having made law or being in the position of possibly making law that might affect what is under review. This make the idea of sovereignty incoherent.
    Wasn’t Andrew Turnbull trying to say that he doesn’t think much of MPs or the supervision they now exercise over aspects of executive government? By his own logic, civil servants themselves have to constitute an interest group and one, it seems, that resents the glimmerings of accountability now showing in the work of such parliamentary bodies as Pasc and the PAC and occasional Lords’ inquiries.

  2. Peter Riddell on 23 January 2014 at 11:18 am

    Parliament should be part of a civil service inquiry but with outsiders to ensure broad view.

  3. Peter Tomlinson on 9 February 2014 at 6:27 pm

    What has happened to the emphasis on upskilling in Whitehall Depts? That is something that they can just get on with. That is the way that Scotland has gone, and Wales is moving in the same direction. That is the way that our near neighbours in continental Europe have gone. That is what Lord Heseltine has said they need to go. That is the way that Tony Blair knew they had to go back in 2004/5. That is something that I don’t see in a Dept with which I have regular contact.

  4. Marc Kidson on 10 February 2014 at 1:47 pm

    From our work looking at Civil Service capabilities and involvement in a recent review of the Policy Profession, there do appear to be a number of areas where clarifying and building essential skills is taking place.

    While the Professional Skills for Government agenda in the mid-2000s had some valuable frameworks for skills development, it was a ‘wide-and-shallow’ approach that relied on a loose set of professional platforms with weak corporate support. The current approach reflects the lesson that we set out in our discussion paper ‘Civil Service Capabilities’, to focus on “mission critical” capabilities with strong central support. You can see this emerging in procurement, major project management and digital skills, albeit with a range of tensions still to be handled between the centre and departments.

    In the other key area of policy making capability, the Policy Profession Review is the result of some fresh thinking on the issue, largely under the political radar. In recent years the profession has gained a number of senior champions in the Civil Service, who are driving forward the agenda on skills and capability, working far more through departmental Heads of Policy Profession. Progress is still variable, but it is a positive development.

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