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Michael Gove’s new non-executive directors should not become quasi-special advisers

Non-executive directors shouldn’t act as additional ministers or special advisers

Four new appointments at the Cabinet Office show that Michael Gove wants to make a personal mark on civil service reform. That’s no bad thing, but non-executive directors shouldn’t act as additional ministers or special advisers, says Alex Thomas

One of the changes to government which Francis Maude brought in when he was minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010 to 2015 was to strengthen the network of non-executive directors (NEDs), with three or four in each government department. Maude, with the government’s then lead NED Lord Browne, required secretaries of state – rather than permanent secretaries, as had been the case previously – to appoint board members who were drawn from business and commercial sectors.

Michael Gove clearly agrees on the value of ministers making these appointments, but perhaps less on the need for them to come from a business or commercial background. He has recruited Simone Finn, Gisela Stuart, Henry De Zoete and Bernard Hogan-Howe to sit on the Cabinet Office’s board. While the Cabinet Office website assures us that they were recruited through open competition, the process is opaque and nobody imagines these appointments are solely the product of a bureaucratic sifting exercise. Finn, Stuart and De Zoete have worked closely with Gove in the past (Finn and De Zoete were special advisers), and he will use these four influential characters to shape and make real plans to reform the civil service. But they have limited business experience, with only De Zoete having run a commercial enterprise. That is a loss and, if repeated across departments, will weaken the non-executive network.

NEDs have contributed most when applying business experience to project delivery

It is not unusual for governments to bring in policy advisers as ministers, such as Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”, or even as “Tsars” with executive responsibility for specific issues, but non-executive directors have a specific function – to support and challenge on project delivery, not the policy decisions of ministers.

Maude’s intention was to use NEDs to revive departmental boards which had become marginal to the life of most departments. NEDs were to bring the benefits of the private sector to departments, challenging them on how they run their work programmes. But the effectiveness of board meetings has been patchy, with secretaries of state approaching chairing duties with wildly differing levels of priority and even Lord Browne describing their success as "ragged" in 2015

The main contribution of successful NEDs has been outside the formal structures, getting under the skin of departments by gaining the confidence of ministers, working with and advising civil servants, focusing on project delivery and keeping on the pressure for departments to see priority work programmes through. NEDs as a group can also take a view across multiple departments, and hold institutional memories that are lost with high turnover of ministers and civil servants.

Having a commercial, delivery or finance expert on tap who has the interests of the department at heart, but is able to constructively challenge civil servants and ministers around whether their plans are actually going to work, has been a success. Examples include bringing more rigour to HR and auditing processes, encouraging the collection of better management information and challenging on major projects like those preparing for Brexit.

While there is always room for improvement – and to an extent success does depend on having the confidence and interest of a secretary of state, which varies across government and can change over the tenure of an individual non-executive – the existence of the NED network of skills and expertise has helped governments get better at delivering projects for citizens.

Non-executive directors should not be beholden to political machines

NEDs bring something different to a department precisely because they sit outside the usual structures, and the nature of their part-time roles allows them to continue with successful business and other careers. Non-executives are a noticeably different beast from both permanent secretaries and ministers, not beholden to the civil service or political machines.

One of the questions this new crop of Cabinet Office NEDs raises is whether Gove, as the minister who has more influence on this subject than any other, believes in this model. We should look to see who Gove appoints as the government’s lead non-executive director to give a further sense of his wider approach. At both the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Gove cleared out boards with a view to installing NEDs who worked for three or four days a week on the detail of policy and delivery. If the government does start requiring people to give more time to these roles then it will change the nature of the appointments, and the individuals who apply for them. We might expect to see fewer practicing business executives and more NEDs who act as quasi-special advisers or ministers.

The new round of Cabinet Office appointments looks to be in this mould. Gove’s new team members are well established operators and have significant personal qualities, but their experience lies less in the world of commercial delivery and more in the sphere of politics and public policy. That is useful, of course, but it has not been the role of NEDs in the past. It risks muddying the function of ministers as decision-makers on policy.

NEDs exist to challenge ministers and civil servants

Going too far down this route would erode the value of NEDs. There is nothing wrong with a government wanting to bring in outside executive expertise, seeking people with particular skills to come in and run parts of the civil service, or drawing on a wide pool of political advice. But that can happen already, by ministerial appointment in the Lords, the usual special adviser process, or through civil service recruitment, with former civil service chief executive John Manzoni joining from the private sector.

Gove looks to have appointed allies who have experience of working for or alongside him, so it is particularly important that these NEDs have the freedom and skills to challenge ministers and civil servants. Constructive challenge makes for good government and helps avoid delivery mistakes. Non-executive voices exist in order to amplify – in private – that challenge. A strong government should welcome such challenge.

Cabinet Office
Institute for Government

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