Robert Salisbury: The machinery of government needs reform – or else the UK will find itself adrift in this new world

27 May

Lord Salisbury was the MP for South Dorset between 1979-1987 and currently serves as Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

“Northcote-Trevelyan” are two names which trip easily from the lips of Civil Service reformers. Unlike many others, Dame Patricia Hodgson had actually read that seminal work before taking up her role as Chairman of Policy Exchange’s Reform of Government Commission. She then sat down and read it again, and went on to study the succession of reports on the Civil Service which have punctuated the evolution of 20th century public administration. Her own Commission’s report, entitled Government Reimagined, is published this week.

Just as the printing press changed society and caught the then institutions of government flat-footed, technology is today doing the same. Unless we reform our institutions so that they are able to perform in this new world, those who believe in a nation state governed by institutions both great and small will find themselves adrift.

It is this technological world to which British public administration must adapt. To work out how, Hodgson assembled a distinguished commission, composed of members from all political parties and from none. The Commission included former ministers like Baroness Morgan and Hazel Blears; former officials like Lord Macpherson, the former Treasury Permanent Secretary; General Sir Peter Wall, former Chief of the General Staff; and former public servants like Trevor Philips.

An experienced and forensic outside view was provided by Sir Lockwood Smith, who recently served as New Zealand’s High Commissioner in London. Lockwood had been largely responsible as a minister for reforming public administration in New Zealand; a reform programme that has generally accepted as a great success.

The Commission took evidence from a number of former ministers and public servants in both local government and in Whitehall. They included Lord Blunkett, Lord Sedwill, Lord Maude, Sir Howard Bernstein and Dame Sue Owen (the former Permanent Secretary at DCMS). There was some anecdotal evidence which was shocking, but much praise for the quality and dedication of present day civil servants.

There seemed to be a consensus that, whatever the merits of the status quo, the present system does need to change. This view was supported by an opinion poll conducted for Policy Exchange which suggested that 72 per cent of the public feels that the machinery of government needs reform. Above all, we must reverse what many of the Commission’s witnesses deplored: the gap between policy and operations. This question is further complicated when ministers are held accountable to Parliament when often operational matters have been delegated to agencies.

The Commission’s report makes a number of suggestions to remedy the situation. These will hopefully inform not only the present government’s upcoming white paper but will also inspire future reform-minded governments of all political persuasions.

On skills and operations, it recommends that the question of pay should be addressed through the introduction of a new pay grade. Given the scale of technological change, it is shocking, for example, that the Government hasn’t been able to recruit a Chief Digital Officer. The report also commends recent efforts to improve civil service training, such as The New Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills, and it questions the present reliance on outside consultants.

The Policy Exchange report also recognises the increasing demands on ministers and recommends that more should be done to prepare potential ministers for office through the introduction of ministerial training courses, emulating the one set up in conjunction with Infrastructure Projects Authority and the Said Business School on infrastructure spending.

The Commission was very struck by evidence it heard about the New Zealand experience where assessment of a department’s performance is based on the extent to which it had achieved the objectives agreed with an incoming minister. Ministers in the UK should also be able to issue letters of strategic priorities to Permanent Secretaries. Such letters should be published in full and Parliament should review Permanent Secretaries on their progress.

While it is essential that the Civil Service is attuned to political priorities, as the report makes clear we need, as we always shall, a professional, politically neutral Civil Service. Civil servants must be confident enough to say to ministers, in the immortal words of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey, “If you must do this bloody silly thing, don’t do it in this bloody silly way”.

It is also clear that data is central to the formulation and execution of policy. Successful administrations overseas understand this. The present Japanese government‘s approach to its proposed administrative reforms is understood to be based on that premise. Various attempts have been made at reform in Whitehall based on a similar approach, but it seems only with mixed success so far.

We must follow suit. Each major delivery department should appoint a Second Permanent Secretary focused entirely on digital questions. The new Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) must also, as a matter of urgency, complete a comprehensive review of every department’s data assets. A Digital and Data Audit Office should also be established. Modelled after the National Audit Office, with a corresponding Parliamentary Select Committee, this will ensure that there is sufficient technical and ethical scrutiny of Government digital services and products.

The implementation of Hodgson’s proposals will allow us to consider further questions that I believe technological change should force us to confront. For instance, are our present constitutional arrangements in tune with a networked age, rather than a hierarchical one? If not, should Whitehall do less and the regions of England and the three Celtic nations do more? Would Whitehall then work more effectively if it had less to do and therefore did it better? How should Parliament be reformed? Why are we not reforming and simplifying the taxation system?

The fashion, at least rhetorically, is for devolution of power. In my opinion, it is an attractive approach, particularly since technological change seems to favour networks rather than top down hierarchies. Nevertheless, crises like the Covid pandemic suggest that centralised authority is needed in times of crisis. Perhaps, if the Commission were to embark on a further piece of work, one of the areas it could consider is how central direction should be exercised over devolved governments and local authorities both in times of crisis and, equally importantly, in assessing risks threats and opportunities in the field of security. Cooperation rather than what Lord Lisvane calls “imperial condescension” may be the key here.

Radical reform is something that only the government of the day can undertake. It is a process that would certainly take more than a single Parliament. What are the chances of a cross-party approach for such an enterprise? It would certainly demand imagination and generosity of spirit from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Maybe, just maybe, this cross-party Commission shows that such cooperation might be possible.