Be careful what you wish for...
20 November 2012
Ministers' rhetoric about obstructive civil servants and outdated bureaucracy may be a staple of government, but the clamour for wholesale reform of the civil service could come back to bite them. Alison Thomas talks to Dave Penman, the new general secretary of senior civil service union the FDA
Proposals for civil service reform have not been thought through and contain enough pitfalls to make future governments heartily regret them – let alone potentially demoralising and alienating loyal public servants through "scapegoating" rhetoric, according to the FDA's Dave Penman.
The reform plan contains some "good and uncontroversial commitments" around training and development, says Penman, a former DWP civil servant who has worked for the FDA for 12 years. The problem is not so much what is spelt out in the plan, but the background noise around it "about capability and blaming the civil service for policy failures". And this "rhetoric without real substance" is leading to what he describes as a worrying lack of trust in the civil service.
"There needs to be a broader consensus about what needs to change, and so far the government has failed to build a consensus on what would work," Penman says.
The devil will be in the detail of proposals to give ministers a bigger say in senior appointments, for example.
"If you are a minister you have no real say in the appointment of your permanent secretary, the final decision is down to the civil service commission, so you can understand them wanting to have a greater influence on that," Penman says.
"The difficulty is where it leads to. If you happen to be lucky enough to be a new minister with a permanent secretary vacancy you will have a great say in the appointment. What happens with all the ministers that don't have a vacancy? Do they start to pick and choose?"
And he has doubts about what ministers would bring to the selection process. "Ministers are not management gurus. They don't necessarily have any great skill or experience in selecting a person to run a department of maybe 100,000 people."
The potential result will be judgements based on politics not expertise, Penman suggests, and permanent secretaries closely aligned with the views of their minister. But under the last Labour government, the average lifespan of a minister was only 15 months.
"So what happens when that minister moves on – do they take the civil servant with them? If you have that constant movement around, quite apart from the politicisation, it is not good for the organisation to have that level of turnover and lack of consistency at the top level of management. It has not been thought through."
The same is true of the idea to outsource policy-making, floated by former Number 10 policy guru Steve Hilton, Penman suggests.
"Any good policy formulation will have input from outside, and take account of think tanks and broader views, rather than a narrow view. Then people are in the best position to decide on controversial issues, rather than having a partial view which people would have some concern about and suspicion of."
But he adds: "The civil service also needs to understand that it's an important challenge to them to demonstrate that they are providing the best policy advice. Is this just about ideology or is there genuine concern to get better policy formulation?"
He also believes there are some fundamental misunderstandings among select committees and MPs more generally about responsibility, accountability, and exactly where the buck stops.
"I can understand the frustration in select committees, and some of the suggestions for change make sense. If you have moved to another department and someone has replaced you three months ago, there is no sense for them to go to the Public Accounts Committee to talk about detailed issues.
"The concern is, particularly when you start getting people being asked to swear on oath, that the committee structure is not performing a role it was set up to do. Civil servants are not there to account for every decision that was taken. They are there to give the factual position and to represent the minister."
Select committees seeking to criticise or blame individuals misunderstand their role, he says. "When a civil servant gives evidence they are not giving the full position of who did what and when to allow that committee to apportion individual blame. They are giving the factual view, representing the minister, but not to the point where that committee would be in possession of all the facts to allow that individual civil servant to defend themselves over what happened and say why the minister did it. That is not appropriate.
"I don't think anyone wants civil servants turning up and saying 'that's what I said but the minister refused to take my advice'. There has to be confidentiality around policy formation otherwise civil servants will be there to defend their actions – and if that exposes the minister, so be it.
"It ends up with witch hunts. Some politicians would not be comfortable with that either."
Passing judgement on individual civil servants is the responsibility of the civil service and the individual department, Penman argues.
"MPs, and the Lords constitutional committee, struggle with that concept.
"But this idea that no one is ever going to be disciplined, and if MPs don't do it nobody else will, is simply not true. We are a trade union – we wouldn't be in business if the civil service looked after its own and people were never disciplined."This article first appeared in Public Servant magazine