Do ministers really want mandarins to emerge from the shadows?
22 November 2012
Ministers aim to raise the pace and performance of policy implementation. They want clear objectives, but who will become more accountable – politicians or civil servants? Akash Paun looks at the issues
The UK government's civil service reform plan includes a number of significant changes to accountability mechanisms in Whitehall. This agenda is driven by a view that poor performance in Whitehall is ineffectively handled. Yet the convention of ministerial responsibility means that it is ministers who are held responsible for operational and administrative failings by civil servants. Consequently, there is a desire to "sharpen" the personal accountability of individual officials in Whitehall – for instance by extending the traditional accounting officer role.
At the same time, the Government is proposing that ministers need a greater role in the appointment and performance management of top officials. The logic is that if ministers are to be held responsible for departmental failings, then they should have the tools to tackle the problems directly through hiring and firing powers.
Arguably, the two strands of this reform agenda run in different directions. Making civil servants more personally accountable implies that they will be given a greater degree of independence from political control, while strengthening ministerial powers over officials implies that ministers themselves will, if anything, shoulder even more responsibility for departmental failings. As it seeks to resolve such dilemmas and firm up its plans, the the government is looking to lessons from overseas – not least New Zealand.
As discussed in a new Institute for Government paper, the approach adopted in New Zealand has been to separate ministerial and civil service accountability much more clearly, while entrenching the independence of the civil service from political pressures. The big impetus for reform came after 1987 and was fed by a perception that the civil service was overly bureaucratic and unresponsive to ministerial demands.
The new system included a contractual relationship between ministers and the civil service, whereby ministers commission their departments to deliver specified policy outputs. Alongside this came greater transparency and clear performance objectives for departmental chief executives (permanent secretary equivalents). Chief executives also became employed on renewable fixed-term contracts, providing a more transparent way to move on poor performers than exists in Whitehall.
Chief executives have significant autonomy over the management of their departments. Indeed, it is explicit in the New Zealand cabinet manual that ministers should not involve themselves in their departments' "day-to-day operations". Ministers are also physically located outside of the department – cabinet ministers are all based centrally in 'The Beehive' next to the parliament building.
The clear separation of the political and the administrative has some interesting consequences. The system provides clearer accountability when the administration underperforms. But as a result, chief executives have a greater public profile than British permanent secretaries. They can frequently be found in the media explaining government policy and defending the department from criticism.
In exceptional cases, a chief executive may even advocate a policy position that runs counter to that of the government of the day, unheard of here. Policy advice from departments is routinely published as well, further underscoring the distinct roles of ministers and officials. Is the UK government ready for their mandarins to emerge from the shadows in this way?
In New Zealand, an important role is played by the State Services Commissioner (a sort of operational head of the civil service). The commissioner appoints and performance manages chief executives, and protects civil service impartiality. In the UK, the functions played by the State Services Commissioner are spread across at least three individuals: the Cabinet Secretary, the Head of the Civil Service and the First Civil Service Commissioner. Having a strong corporate centre of the civil service is recognised as crucial for driving change and improving performance across the system.
The current reform agenda in New Zealand is seeking to improve the coherence of the centre, by better joining up the State Services Commission (SSC) with the other two central agencies – the Treasury and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In the past, the Treasury and SSC have failed to coordinate their collection of information on departments' budgetary and workforce requirements, for instance.
Another theme of the ongoing reforms in Wellington – the Better Public Services agenda – is increasing government's capacity to tackle complex issues that cut across departmental boundaries. The sharp vertical accountability arrangements for departmental chief executives had the side effect of reinforcing a silo culture, exacerbated by a proliferation of specialised agencies.
To counter this, the government has developed ten top-level priority outcomes or 'results' – including a reduction in reoffending by criminals. Departments must collaborate to achieve these and chief executives' performance objectives have been revised to reflect the focus on collaboration. Budgetary flexibility is being increased to encourage resource-sharing – always a challenge in Whitehall too.
New Zealand ranks highly in international rankings of government effectiveness and accountability, but few in Wellington would claim that their system is perfect. Indeed many recent reforms have emulated now-abandoned initiatives in the UK such as capability reviews and cross-cutting public service targets, reflecting problems with the initial reforms. The NZ model is itself a work in progress, so there is no fixed blueprint to import to London. There is, however, a rich seam of experience that the UK government can learn from as it proceeds down the path of reform.
Akash Paun is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government in London and co-author of Reforming Civil Service Accountability.
This article first appeared in Public Servant magazine