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Guest blog: Bernard Jenkin MP on permanent secretary objectives and role of Civil Service CEO

Reflecting on Martin Donnelly's case.

Martin Donnelly set out the up-to-date case for an impartial and permanent civil service. It is worth reflecting that it is only necessary for a permanent secretary to make such a speech, because the established order is now subject to such uncertainty. Since then, the government has announced there will be a Civil Service chief executive and the 2014-15 permanent secretary objectives have been published.

The Civil Service is one of the great institutions of state. Under our constitution, the executive exercises the Royal Prerogative and enjoys substantial de facto control over the legislature and appointments to the judiciary. Governments come and go, and having no codified constitution, or formal separation of powers, Parliament depends upon this body of permanent officials underpin the constitutional stability of our country. That is why a permanent and impartial Civil Service was established. The Civil Service has no separate legal personality: the Crown, ministers and the Civil Service are in law indivisible. Any move away from the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement would be a major constitutional change. But for our system to work, a high level of trust between ministers and officials is required. This trust, and with it the relationship between ministers and civil servants, seems to be breaking down (watch this space - PASC will be looking at this question in the autumn). Now that Sir Bob Kerslake will step down as Head of the Civil Service (HCS), the old order is being restored, by Cabinet Secretary (CabSec) Sir Jeremy Heywood taking back that role (sigh of relief across Whitehall!). However, the appointment of a Civil Service chief executive, who will also be Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, with experience outside Whitehall, begs many questions. PASC will review this new role when Sir Jeremy appears before us on Monday 8 September. What will such a chief executive execute? On the one hand, Francis Maude has demonstrated, amid regular expressions of frustration, how much can be achieved by shaking the tree from the centre, to improve IT, digitisation, project management, efficient use of property and so on. But the friction generated also demonstrates that trying to improve commercial skills, issuing directives, setting new targets and objectives on their own have their limits. Figures like Lord Browne champion the idea of a strong centre for Whitehall (and he is to be one of the appointment panel) but the indications are that the Chief Executive role will be limited. If there were going to be a new centre of Whitehall, with power over departments, then that would be a serious and radical change, which requires a good deal more discussion and scrutiny to be credible. It is not something that can be achieved by stealth. As the Institute for Government's Peter Riddell has pointed out, the new role “will not be a chief executive in any sense normally recognized in either the private or public sectors” and will be limited to the Cabinet Office remit of commercial, supplier management, digital, property, HR, project management and civil service reform. Permanent secretaries will answer to the CabSec and HCS. Is this going to be enough? Will such a limited direct role achieve the step change in efficiency and accountability that ministers both want and deserve? Leadership Just recently, the departure of Tesco’s chief executive suggests that the company's leadership model, with its primary focus on cost-cutting and efficiency, has also proved its limitations. To get real sustainable improvement, the Whitehall leadership first needs to recognise why things don’t work so well now, and the real changes that need to be made. They are not about structures, or contracts, or performance benchmarks. They are not just about hard skills, like contract management and IT. Hammering at just things like this cannot create the true, broad, responsive and accountable capability ministers crave. The 2014-15 permanent secretary objectives and indeed the Civil Service Reform Plan, with its “7 game changers” are not on their own enough. Change needs to be far more about people, their attitudes and learned behaviour. Many people struggle to combat the negative, cynical, secretive, competitive, unsupportive and ultimately destructive culture of Whitehall. There is still too little emphasis on what it is to lead people, what it feels like to be accountable for that leadership in Whitehall, and too little importance attached to understanding what it is like to work in Whitehall departments. Pitifully few of the 2014-15 permanent secretary objectives even mention employee engagement, and the importance of improving the annual engagement index in departments and across Whitehall as a whole. And yet no organisation can function effectively, let alone optimise performance, without high levels of employee engagement. It should be a primary objective of all leaders in Whitehall: a prime indicator of performance, not just a tie-breaker. Whitehall has responded to modern politics by becoming more ‘political’, more driven by the news agenda where everything has to be presented as better than it really is. Accountability has come to mean blaming people, rather than empowerment. Despite seeking to be more responsive, ministers feel their decisions are blocked or unreasonably delayed by officials, even deliberately or dishonestly. Nobody wants this. How the new Whitehall chief executive fixes this should be his or her top priority. Role of the new chief executive The new chief executive must be someone who recognises that accountability cannot be achieved by forcing obedience to ministerial orders so that instructions are carried out more directly, or finding who to blame when things go wrong. Accountability is about trusting your subordinates that they will not just observe process, but will exercise their judgement, as they carry out their roles, responsibilities and tasks. In turn, leadership is about winning the trust of subordinates, understanding problems they face, and supporting them as they resolve them. The new Chief Executive should be the alter ego of CabSec and HCS, to whom he/she will report. Together their prime objective should be to promote the understanding that accountability depends upon trust and openness between individuals at all levels is essential, and that this depends upon every leader and decision-maker across Whitehall developing a shared understanding of what it is together they aim to achieve. The Prime Minister and Francis Maude need to become the political champions of this approach. Without this understanding, performance management reduces relationships to a top-down transaction, as though permanent secretaries should manage their subordinates like double glazing salesmen. In the most effective organisations, working relationships are not transactional, but based on shared belief in the overall mission, on shared values and the active sharing of strategic intent. It helps if you like the person you are working for; and vice versa. Then people become willing to take responsibility and to be held to account. And when things get difficult and mistakes are made, as always happens, openness and trust become even more essential if there is to be learning and improvement. Complex arena In the complex arena of Whitehall, working relationships depend above all upon subtle understandings between the individuals concerned. There needs to be trust that information and knowledge which is shared will be used to help and support one another, not to undermine or to discredit.  Rather than Tesco, this demands more of the John Lewis Partnership approach, in which your performance is evaluated against the manner in which you approach your tasks, and treat your colleagues, not just on the output. The mission, the purpose, is the primary means of leadership. Francis Maude rightly wants passionate commitment from civil servants to their tasks. This requires developing a shared vision and purpose, backed by values like honesty, fairness and service in pursuit of the public good.  Indeed, this is the only means of achieving it. The leadership of the Civil Service can draw upon its powerful sense of mission, about why we have a professional, permanent and impartial Civil Service, and about how the people within it aspire for it to work so much better than it does. Francis Maude is right to say that there needs to be an end to the negative briefings. It is understandable that where a negative atmosphere persists, officials would rather not take decisions or take responsibility, and therefore it is also inevitable that ministers should feel things are not being done, and Parliament feels powerless to hold ministers to account. So the new Chief Executive needs to lead a rather different conversation across Whitehall. His/her strategy should be about promoting a common purpose, increasing employee engagement, and promoting the right values in the institution they lead. Leadership is about building a shared understanding of objectives, of agreed plans, and of agreed ways, means and ends. Accountability, trust and leadership must be regarded as core values of the Civil Service. He or she will then need to gather a full understanding of why people hold negative attitudes, and to behave as they do. Such an understanding needs to be shared by a united leadership. Only then can they agree on a plan about how to reshape attitude and behaviour: or what some call the “culture” of Whitehall. This is much harder than restructuring, or deciding to contract out, or setting new objectives, but there is no substitute of promoting such real change. Now, there is a challenge for a new Civil Service chief executive. And he or she will need the full backing of the Cabinet Secretary and ministers, including the prime minister. Disunity or disinterest from the top will just mean change takes far too long, if it happens at all.  

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