19 June 2013

The Civil Service is in the middle of a period of big cuts, structural changes, strained relations between some ministers and senior officials, and uncertainty about its role and function. This has fuelled demands for an inquiry into its future – from a diverse group of Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Committee; the First Division Association of senior civil servants; and, last week, Lord Browne of Madingley, the Government’s lead non-executive director. All three agree on the need for a fresh, independent and authoritative look. That call has so far been firmly resisted by Francis Maude, Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake.

There are three interlinked questions: what, how and who? The what is central. What would an inquiry tells us that we don’t already know and how would it/could it improve on existing reform efforts?

The pragmatic view of the Maude/Heywood/Kerslake axis is that it is far better to get on with the existing, only partially achieved reform plans rather than risk putting everything on hold and delaying necessary change while you wait for an inquiry to report. They are correct that there is no point in having an inquiry just for the sake of it or if it holds up desirable initiatives under way in, for instance, major projects, procurements and capabilities. Yet incrementalism is not enough, as Mr Jenkin has said.

The current scale of change – and the certainty that it will continue for the rest of the decade — raises big questions about the way Whitehall operates and services are delivered, as well as the more frequently highlighted issues of accountability and Secretary of State/Permanent Secretary relations. For instance, in his recent speech at the IfG, Lord Browne argued that the whole nature of departments needs to be reconsidered. He argued for moving from the long-established federal structure to a more unified one. These are proper issues for an inquiry, running alongside but in no way undermining existing reform efforts.

An inquiry might offer the chance of building both greater consensus between politicians and civil servants, and cross-party support, around the purpose and shape of the Civil Service. The IfG will be considering such questions itself.

Lord Browne crucially added that ‘if the result were a more effective, flexible and sustainable Civil Service, fit for the modern world, then it would be time well spent. If it were just a report for the archive it would be very damaging’. Quite. That links into the how and who questions.

A Royal Commission, urged by some, would definitely be the wrong answer. As an accompanying blog by Pepita Barlow and myself points out, their track record is poor – taking too long, often becoming irrelevant and having their recommendations ignored. Governments have recently set up inquiries under eminent figures to tackle thorny problems, such as Lord (Adair) Turner on pensions, Sir Howard Davies on London airport capacity, and Lords Dearing and Browne on higher education. In this case there is an argument for explicitly political involvement.

A Parliamentary Commission of both Houses, on the model of the commission into the banking system which has just published its findings under Andrew Tyrie, has been urged by Mr Jenkin. There are risks here, of being captured by vested, former ministerial and civil service interests, and opinions, the better yesterday crowd always harking to the often misleading lessons of the Northcote-Trevelyan report.

So any inquiry needs to have the right terms of reference; the right procedures; and the right leadership, and should report within a maximum of 18 months:

  1. An inquiry should be focused on the role and functions of the Civil Service, rather than be yet another replay of the ministers/permanent secretaries/Parliament saga (fully discussed in last year’s Lords Constitution Committee report, in the new IPPR study; and by several IfG reports).
  2. Moreover, whether a parliamentary or a broader based inquiry, it needs go beyond the usual suspects at the top of Whitehall and Westminster and engage with a wider range of views from those who might be part of future governments, with middle-ranking civil servants who are currently experiencing huge changes, and with the broad range of groups who are affected by the Civil Service. These include arm's-length bodies, the business world, academia and, not least, the public.
  3. An inquiry could follow the procedures of Lord Turner’s team, which as the IfG has shown, succeeded by getting agreement, first, on what the evidence indicated about the nature of the problem, and then worked towards trying to build broad support on the way forward.
  4. It would probably be best if any inquiry was not headed by, and the membership not dominated by, former ministers and permanent secretaries. A chair without prior baggage in this area would be best.

The doubters about an inquiry are right to be worried about its potential distracting impact and about the risks of weakening the current reform drive. Nonetheless, there are potential gains from an inquiry looking at the future role of the Civil Service – and establishing wide support for durable reform.