Dacre, Moore, Neil. Is triple change coming for the BBC?

27 Sep

Each weekday, this site publishes a list of public appointments vacancy highlights, in order to encourage conservatives to apply.  This may just be worth mentioning in the context of the Sunday Times‘ claim today that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail Editor, and Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph Editor, are tipped to be the next Chairman of Ofcom and the BBC respectively.

We got the list up and running in the wake of the Taxpayers’ Alliance reporting, during the early years of the Coalition, that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

Its findings were followed on ConservativeHome by an occasional back-and-forth between Matthew Elliott, then of the Alliance, and the Cabinet Office, where Francis Maude was in place.  Elliott would write about the latest figures, suggesting that there was still an imbalance.  The Cabinet Office would fight back, arguing that Elliott’s statistics didn’t show the whole picture: for example, many appointments were made on a local and not a national basis.

A number of points became clear over time.  First, the Coalition gradually began to encourage its supporters to apply for posts, and some were appointed: William Shawcross at the Charities Commission, Peter Bazalgette at the Arts Council, David Prior to the Quality Care Commission.

Second, it became clear, as a Policy Exchange report said, that part of the reason there were fewer Conservatives on public bodies is that fewer of them applied in the first place, compared to Labour supporters.  This remains an issue: a further one is the relative inability of those who apply to negotiate diversity requirements – or, rather, the nature of those requirements in the first place.

Third, the reporting criteria has changed.  Candidates for posts now don’t have to declare if they belong to a political party – merely if they’ve been politically active during the past five years.  That’s extremely convenient from a civil service controversy-smothering point of view.

Our sense is that holding office for the last ten years has altered the balance a bit and that the Conservative presence in Downing Street, despite the discontinuity of having three different Tory Prime Ministers in office over five years, is alert to the issues, some of which are beyond its remit.  For example, it’s CCHQ’s job, not Number Ten’s, to take on the party political work of getting conservatives to apply for posts, and training them for interviews.

At any rate, if Boris Johnson wants Dacre at Ofcom and Moore at the BBC, it’s a sign that he himself understands the importance of appointments.  On the one hand, we think the Sunday Times is correct, about Moore at any rate.  On the other, it would be a mistake to think that Dacre would actually run Ofcom day-to-day if appointed, since it has a Chief Executive, Melanie Dawes, a former civil servant.

Moore would be a similar position at the BBC, where Tim Davie has recently taken over as Director-General.  Furthermore, neither appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister or of anyone else: there are appointments processes.

Nonetheless, change at the Corporation is coming.  In a sense, it’s already arrived, because the BBC has lost Andrew Neil, its most formidable political interviewer and another former Fleet Street editor, to GB News, a new TV venture – and thus a challenger to the Corporation.

The appointment of either Dacre or Moore would horrify the BBC powers-that-be, but the former has said that he “would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force”, while Moore thoroughly grasps the Corporation’s original Reithian mission – to “inform, educate and entertain” (in that order).

As for the Corporation itself, we repeat what we’ve written before: what’s required is fewer BBC TV stations, a reduced number of radio services, a scaled-back website, more spent on the World Service, a bigger presence for the Corporation outside London. In other words, less money plus the right reform – change that would leave a solid core of public service broadcasting with the BBC at its heart.

Simone Finn: Civil Service reform. Gove and Case will drive forward the legacy of Heywood and Maude – who’s back to help

8 Sep

Baroness Finn is a Conservative peer, non-executive director at the Cabinet Office and a member of the Commission for Smart Government.

In a year when the Covid pandemic has rocked the machinery of government and tested the civil service’s ability to deliver for the nation, we should welcome the appointment of Simon Case as the new Cabinet Secretary. His former mentor, the great constitutional historian, Peter Hennessey, has hailed his formidable intellect and “heavy-duty powers of organisation”. Case not only understands Whitehall. He has also won the confidence of the Prime Minister with the quality of his advice and his proven ability to think of different ways of doing things.

The challenges are daunting. The civil service has a less than perfect record of implementation, and now, more than ever, needs people with the right capabilities and skills to deliver better services to citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown some of the best of public service, has also exposed structural weaknesses in our bureaucracy, from the data deficiencies of the A-levels fiasco, the digital defects of the NHSX contact-tracing app, and the friction between devolved and centralised power.

As Paul Maynard wrote for ConservativeHome earlier this week, “the machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace.” The problems were already in evidence.  All modern governments face challenges from rising consumer demands, the rapid advance of technology and limited resources. But the public health and economic crises mean that reform is now inescapable.

As a veteran of the Francis Maude and Jeremy Heywood era of civil service reform during the Coalition Government, I know that reform must be continuous. There was a lot of change during this period, only some of which has been properly entrenched.

The setting up of cross-cutting functions at the centre of government and imposition of spending controls saved many billions of pounds and brought in crucial expertise in key areas such as commercial procurement, digital government, and major project management. The creation of the Government Digital Service meant that the UK went to the top of the UN digital rankings in 2016, having been a byword for incompetence in 2009. But there is much more to do.

As I argued at the Institute for Government earlier in the year, the risk-averse culture in the civil service, which has stifled innovation from many brilliant officials, must be replaced by an entrepreneurial attitude that empowers civil servants to experiment and take calculated risks.

The endless meetings and obsession with process that hinder timely implementation have to stop. We need to break down the departmental silos and allow ideas and best practice to flow across government. We also need the political layer to sustain their focus on the need to support reform.

A crucial difference between 2010 and now is the greater willingness of senior civil servants to acknowledge failings in the civil service. During the Coalition Government, Maude was heavily criticised for saying that things needed to change.

He always said that we have some of the best civil servants in the world – I had the privilege of working with many of them and they articulated the problems far better than many ministers – but when Maude highlighted the faults in the service, it was almost seen as heresy and he was attacked by some retired mandarins for having the impertinence to suggest that change was needed.

That culture of ultra-defensiveness, born out of a strange cocktail of insecurity and complacency, has to change. The fact that it has become commonplace to acknowledge the problems and need for change is important – and a key legacy of Maude and Heywood’s leadership

There is a significant appetite for reform at the top of government. Boris Johnson has talked of the frustration of pulling levers and finding they are not attached to anything. He has charged Michael Gove, one of the Government’s strongest ministers and a proven reformer, with driving through a transformation of the civil service machine.

His Ditchley Lecture – thoughtful, provocative and inspiring – set out the moral case for change and made clear that achieving Johnson’s ambition of levelling up the country depends on making the system of government work better.

Maude has been brought back to conduct a short review of the Government’s central capabilities to identify where progress has slipped. Downing Street staff, including the Prime Minister’s advisers and policy unit, are moving to a new ‘command centre” at the Cabinet Office as part of plans to integrate its functions more closely with Number 10.

The best ideas for reform won’t come from within government alone. We need to hear from those who have worked in and with the civil service about what could be done better. That’s why I’ve joined the Commission for Smart Government which was launched last month to consider how to make public administration more effective.

Nick Herbert, the radically-minded former minister and Chair of the Commission, has rightly argued that systemic problems are too often blamed on civil servants when politicians are equally responsible for failure. Ministers can be at fault here – too often uninterested in institutional reform, chasing headlines, and jumping from idea to idea. When we consider how to ensure that the executive has the right skills and experience, we also need to think about how to equip ministers as well.

The Commission, which has an impressive membership of experts and senior leaders, is consulting on the key questions about the UK’s public administration. What are the examples of best practice from which we can learn? How can we attract the best people, nurture their talents and retain world-class public officials? How can we use transparency and accountability to drive efficiency? How can we maximise the public benefit from the targeted deployment of data science and artificial intelligence? How can we harness technological innovation to drive better governance as one of the commissioners, Daniel Korski, has proposed?

The Commission’s consultation is being conducted on an open platform, making our draft papers and evidence sessions visible, and encouraging all those with ideas and experience to contribute. We want to encourage all those interested in better government to contribute practical ideas for a fundamental overhaul of the British state

This pandemic will not be the last major crisis we face. The civil service needs to be confident in its ability to lead the world in the quality of its crisis response and proud of its track record of delivering for all corners of the UK.

This Government’s success depends on the ability of the civil service to implement policies, projects and manifesto promises. On his appointment, Case said that it was a privilege to “lead a service that is working day in, day out to deliver for people right across the country.” This Government has big ambitions. He must ensure that Whitehall can deliver them.

Bernard Jenkin: Case’s appointment could mark a fresh start – after deteriorating confidence between Ministers and officials

4 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service presents a new opportunity to make a fresh start on the relationship between the Government and the civil servants. It follows a period of deteriorating confidence and increasing disillusion between the Government and its officials.

Ministers must want to end the paralysing effects of regular disputes with the civil servants upon whom they depend for policy and advice and for the delivery of their decisions. Ministers need to wake up to the fact that, on any realistic time horizon, this is the only civil service there is.  There is no instant alternative.  By all means complain about it (best in private), but nurture it too.  That means improving Whitehall leadership and addressing Whitehall culture.  This appointment should jolt the coming generation of Whitehall leaders out of any remaining complacency that there must be change.  But what kind of change?

Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture about Whitehall highlighted at least 18 criticisms, most of them familiar and about which the civil service has been too complacent for too long.  Michael also proposed six main solutions: relocating Government decision-making out of London: recruiting policymakers from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”; a “more thoughtful approach to devolution”; promoting officials in-role, to reduce churn and to retain talent; and re-establishing a “properly-resourced campus for training those in Government”.

Sadly, that last and vital proposal has already been dropped, because the Treasury knew nothing of this announcement before it was made.  So back we go to just on-line learning and teaching by contractors. Overall, the speech did not give a clear vision of what sort of institution we want it to be.

It is curious that a speech addressing organisational dysfunction should place so little emphasis on the need for the civil service to develop its own stronger leadership.  The new National Leadership Centre has been established to develop better leaders across the public sector, and should be supported by ministers.

Like any other organisation, the Civil Service depends above all on capable leaders.  Equip every official with subject knowledge, expertise and technical skills, fix the structure, stop the churn, and Whitehall will still show many of the Ditchley list of failings unless it develops better leaders.  And leadership is not just an accident of personality.  A great concert pianist may be born with exceptional gifts, but won’t succeed without copious instruction, practice, reviewing and learning.  Capable leaders are the same.

A telling piece of evidence to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry on public procurement came from Lord Levene.  He reformed defence procurement in the 1980s, and came back to advise the Cameron administration in 2010.  He observed how in 1985 he found that 1970s reforms had been “replaced by the bureaucracy which took charge again, and the system soon reverted to type”; and also that when he returned in 2010, again he found “a situation where we were effectively back at the point at which I found myself in the spring of 1985.”

In both cases, temporary radical and apparently successful leadership had failed to leave any permanent effect.  What should be the lesson of this?  Yes, importing fresh leadership from outside can be very positive, but permanent transformation of capability and culture requires much more than just temporarily imposing a new person to provide better direction.

Nor did the Ditchley speech present any ideas that would address weaknesses in Whitehall culture, even though it complained about it being “risk-averse”.  With all the blame handed out by ministers these days, why are we surprised about that?  We must learn from Francis Maude’s experience of reforming Whitehall.  He achieved some significant and lasting organisational changes. He would however be the first to agree that he was disappointed by the very limited impact on Whitehall culture.

He later said that he should have addressed that first, and not as an afterthought.  Instead, he had laid emphasis on trying to gain political control over Permanent Secretary appointments and ministers’ private offices. He got some changes, but the culture remained unchanged.

The lessons of his period are twofold.  First, so much more can be achieved in collaboration with Whitehall.  Second, to attempt to force structural change without addressing culture is the slowest and least effective means of achieving meaningful change.  The fruits from his fighting against civil servants are hard to find.  Reform cannot be forced on such a large and living institution.

The appointment of Simon Case as Head of the Civil Service is an opportunity for ministers and officials to agree how to address leadership and culture in Whitehall.  It is also a signal that the civil service must wake up to its own need to reform its beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (which is what we mean by ‘culture’).  Ministers and officials need to agree about which attitudes and behaviours they want to strengthen, and which need to be rooted out.  This should be at the core of leadership development.

These choices need to be based upon a clear expression of purpose and values, by which leaders must be expected to lead by their example.  That includes ministers.  Experience from all organisations show that lasting change cannot be achieved without unity and a clear example from the top.  A few enthusiasts will not be enough to defeat institutional inertia.  The resisters (and there are always some) have to be confronted and if necessary, forced out, but the resisters will win if everyone senses hesitancy or division at the top.  A few extra weirdos and misfits who can do Monte Carlo Method or Bayesian statistics may be nice to have, but they will not alter the culture of Whitehall one jot.