Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witness (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001

MR JOHNSTON MCNEILL

Chairman

  1. Welcome to the Committee. I am going to start with a small moan, which is that we asked for MAFF's memo reporting progress on the establishment of CAPPA on 18 December, we asked for it by 26 January, and we prepared this brief on 1 February, by which time it had not come. This is a continuing saga of the late delivery of documents and responses, if that could just be noted. Mr McNeill, the advert for your position said, "This post needs a leader with a successful track record of delivering radical organisational change in a substantial private or public sector service delivery organisation. You will be familiar with ICT systems, and you will be keen to grasp the opportunities of e-business." So why you?
  (Mr McNeill) Chairman, I was not on the panel, so it is difficult for me to take a view as to why I was selected. I think my previous experience in the Meat Hygiene Service, which was setting up a significant organisation from scratch, dealing with a number of crises which we have had, of course, in the meat industry over the past five years, probably stood me in good stead. Prior to that, a track record of change management in local government and the private sector, and a successful track record at that, I think also probably stood me in good stead. I do not claim to be an IT expert, and indeed, Chairman, my weakness in that area I will acknowledge now. I have had experience, of course, in developing management information systems and putting in new systems within the organisations I have worked in, but nothing of this scale. My weaknesses, of course, will be addressed by the appointment of the Director of IT or Information Systems, and indeed, we are advertising. This is the advertisement which appeared in this Sunday's Sunday Times, and you can see it is for the CAPPA Director of IS and Director of Finance. If you read the advertisement and look at the job description and personal specifications, we are obviously seeking experts in these areas to strengthen the management team led by myself for CAPPA. In addition, we will be advertising within the next couple of weeks for a Business Development Director. We trawled through Whitehall and we have had some applicants, but the panel has met and decided we should seek additional expertise, rather more expertise than the candidates that have applied from Whitehall have. That advertisement will also be in the papers in the near future. Between those three posts, we are seeking the very best candidates we can get in terms of IT experience, significant change management experience, delivery of electronic services, and of course, we will strengthen that line management function. These directors, as part of the management team, will be strengthened by the use of consultants, and we are very fortunate, as you are aware, Chairman, to have £130 million of funding for this project, which is a very substantial sum of money. Certainly our intention is to make sure we acquire the very best people possible.

  2. When you got the job and you went home and gulped, did you take a piece of paper and say, "I will make a few quick notes now of things that immediately come to mind to do on day one, the first priorities." If you had done that—perhaps you did do it—what would have been the headlines?
  (Mr McNeill) In my experience in these changes processes it is important to see some action. We have had some year plus of discussions—discussions with trade unions, discussions with industry, discussions within MAFF, discussions within government—so I felt that it was important to give some identified leadership to staff, and that on my appointment I should push to create "early CAPPA" as quickly as possible. In other words, it is fine to look three or four years down the road, and it is obviously essential that we do that in terms of developing the systems specifications, etc, but I feel it is important to put together the management team that is going to bring this about, and also to give certainty to the staff that are currently processing claims in the various offices round the country. After all, they are going through a very uncertain time, and they need to actually see a management team for CAPPA, to have line managers who are CAPPA—not Intervention Board, not MAFF, but CAPPA. I feel that was a message that should be sent very quickly, hence moving ahead now to get the structure in place, to get CAPPA people in place, and to move away from the current tripartite arrangement. I am in a somewhat difficult position, obviously, until I have line management responsibility. At this time the Intervention Board is still a paying agency and the regional service centre function of MAFF is still operating, so it is important to actually create CAPPA, whilst, of course, not taking our eyes off the "end game", which is to develop a new systems specification, to look at the work that is undertaken in the regional offices and in IBEA, to identify whether there is a better way of doing that, and to develop a specification for the systems and put that out for tender. That is one of the critical paths in all of this. That process of developing the systems requirement, Chairman, should be complete, I mention in passing, by the end of this financial year.

  3. Looking at all the major government programmes which have depended heavily on the acquisition of new technology, and looking at how many of them "went pear-shaped" in very short order, what do you think you can do to make sure that this does not go that way as well?
  (Mr McNeill) I have read a number of books and papers on the analysis of why these schemes failed—and we all know about the Passport Office and the consequences of that, not least the resignation of the Chief Executive, which often comes with these things, so I am very much focused on the importance of getting this right.

  4. Do you have good severance terms?
  (Mr McNeill) No, Chairman, not as good as they should be! Some of the issues that arise are poor scrutiny of the whole process, people sitting in darkened rooms thinking this up, and the end game not being what everyone anticipated. I can assure you that this project is already under intense scrutiny. There are bodies such as the National Audit Office on the various boards. On the board scrutinising the whole process we are hoping to have a computer expert from one of the leading computer companies. Between using internal resources and external experts, we hope to have an intense scrutiny of the process right the way through. I think that is important. Secondly, we must give senior management in CAPPA time to manage the process. There is a feeling that if people end up doing this work in the evening and at weekends, they are not focusing as much as they should. That is not a criticism, but they have their day job to do as well. In developing the early CAPPA structure, I am trying to make sure that we do not put in too lean a structure, which leaves staff, the senior management of the organisation, and indeed others in the organisation, too tight for time to really focus on this significant task. We are spending £130 million of government money. This is in itself a massive piece of work. It is not our intention that it should be run by consultants. It is not our intention that we let the technicians take over the game. What we will do is make sure that line management have a regular day or two days a week, whatever is required, regular time focusing on new CAPPA and how it is to come about, and we will use consultants in the proper way, which is to bring in expertise which does not exist within the team, or indeed, to challenge us on what is happening to make sure that what we are doing is correct.

Mr Todd

  5. You mentioned the process of recruitment. What are the terms and conditions of these posts?
  (Mr McNeill) The Director of Information Systems is on a package up to £90,000, and the Director of Finance, a salary to £65,000 plus benefits. Shall I circulate this advertisement?

  6. Yes, please. I have to say, from my experience in this field, I would have said those are not competitive rates for the job, and that you will find some difficulty. You have said you are looking for leading players in these fields, and to take on a task of this kind you will require them. You are not, I think, going to attract people of the calibre that you probably require to do this job with those packages. Indeed, I commented when I looked at your own package that you might have difficulty in attracting the right person to do the job.
  (Mr McNeill) I could not possibly comment.

  7. You may have managed to negotiate an improvement. I do not know. Certainly, in my experience, these were not, within the private sector, what you would expect to command to take on such a dramatic change management and new technology role.
  (Mr McNeill) I would agree with you. It is a constraint, obviously, in attracting the very best, particularly in the current economic climate. I would have liked to have paid more, but we have to live within what is possible in the Civil Service.

  8. The difficulty is, if you have to live within the possible, we may end up with a project which is less effectively led and less competently carried out than would be desirable.
  (Mr McNeill) I was going to add that, if you look at the advertisement in detail, it does make it clear that more is available for an exceptional candidate, and while that is the indicative figure which the current job valuation system within the Civil Service would indicate should be paid, we have flexibility within a certain range to perhaps offer more, or a better package.

  9. I am slightly out of date on this, but you could add 100 per cent to those rates. I do not know what "more" means in this context.
  (Mr McNeill) I do not think it would be as much as 100 per cent, but there is some flexibility. Having said that, we had discussions with the Director of Establishments in MAFF and others, and indeed PricewaterhouseCoopers, the independent consultants, advised on these appointments and the remuneration level, and were content that at that level we should be able to fill the job.

  10. I am sure you will fill the jobs, yes.
  (Mr McNeill) Not taking a B team, but with a suitable candidate who could do the job. But there is more available for a more experienced candidate who brings more value to the process. In addition, we already have some IT consultants working with us, who, of course, are on substantially more than that, but they will continue to work on the process.

  11. Let me turn to you. Your MHS experience, I think you would probably concede, has not been necessarily lauded from every corner of the industry. How would you view your relationship with your key customers and the rest of the sector that relies on the MHS?
  (Mr McNeill) Of course, Chairman, the MHS, apart from standing for the Meat Hygiene Service also stands for the Most Hated Service.

  12. You said it, not me. I think that is a fair point.
  (Mr McNeill) It is well-known. The function of the Meat Hygiene Service is hardly attractive to the industry, or indeed to farmers. I would accept that the MHS did not have fans in all areas, but we had an industry forum which was made up of some 30-40 representatives from farmers' unions to meat trade representatives, which met on a bi-monthly basis, and I can only say that over that time I think we had a very constructive dialogue. Let us be honest about it, there were some fundamental difficulties with the Meat Hygiene Service. One was that we charged for the service, which was the biggest area of concern on behalf of the industry, but that is government policy. So it was not as if the organisation was not operating effectively.

  13. That was not the only problem.
  (Mr McNeill) There were other things. We were considered heavy-handed in terms of enforcement, but I think now, when we look at what is happening in Europe, perhaps we were not; perhaps the line we took was right, and whilst it was not popular at the time, on reflection, as indeed was identified in the BSE Inquiry by Lord Justice Phillips, the actions taken by the Meat Hygiene Service played a significant part in addressing the BSE problems.

  14. Would you perhaps concede that the culture of an organisation reflects its Chief Executive, and the image of the MHS with its customers perhaps was a reflection of your style of leadership and the culture which you set in the organisation?
  (Mr McNeill) Yes, I think that is fair comment. I certainly accept that, as I achieved every performance target set for me as Chief Executive of the Meat Hygiene Service. So did the agency. It also achieved ISO 9002 from a standing start. It also achieved a Charter Mark and Investors in People—all by independent assessment, which was not bad going in five years, from a standing start. We transferred staff in from 176 local authorities on different terms and conditions and put that into one body with a clear identity—nobody who worked in the Meat Hygiene Service did not know who they worked for and exactly what we stood for—and I think we had very good communications. We were told by the Minister to take a robust line in ensuring that the controls that had been put in place to address BSE problems were fully enforced, and that included both with the industry and with our staff, so again, the Minister's instructions to the agency were very clear, and we acted on them. It was a tough environment and we had a very hard line to take.

  15. Translating that style into CAPPA, one might expect robust, very narrowly focused adherence to regulation and control systems, unsympathetic handling of queries by farmers about their claims, resolute sticking to previous practice and so on. That might be thought to be what we face. Is that reasonable?
  (Mr McNeill) I think that is unfair. I have already explained that we were given clear performance targets and instructions under paragraph 4.3 of the framework document, a direct instruction from ministers, as to how we were to handle these things, and we had to take a robust approach. That does not carry over into this job, that I have such an instruction or that I have to take such an approach.

  16. We will no doubt come on to the vision you will expound of how CAPPA may look and the culture that you will lead from the front on that. You said quite correctly that for a period the Intervention Board and the MAFF RSCs will continue to manage their own activities. That, certainly from my point of view, from my previous project management experience, is an alarming statement of potential confusion and lack of accountability in the setting up of this project at the start. It is, of course, inevitable in the compromised circumstances of the Civil Service, but scarcely leads one to feel that this project will get off with firm project leadership and clear accountability.
  (Mr McNeill) From what I have seen—and this is my fifth week in the job—from the meetings I have attended and the various project boards I have attended, I am certainly of the view that there is some very tight project management. There is a very intense scrutiny of both developing CAPPA and, indeed, ongoing scrutiny of what is happening with the Regional Service Centres and IBEA.

  17. But these have to be brought together within one controlled concept.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  18. We cannot have a position in which IB and the RSCs continue to run their own little empires while you, with relatively limited resources, and, I suspect, possibly inadequate resources anyway, struggle to put together a project for change.
  (Mr McNeill) I agree with you. That is why since my arrival we have agreed that the CAPPA inheritance will be under single management with effect from 1 April.

  19. That means that the IB will report to you and so will the RSCs?
  (Mr McNeill) That is correct, and, as I have identified in the advertisements and in my previous comments, we are now putting in place the CAPPA management structure. The IBEA management structure, including the Chief Executive and the Regional Service Centres under Mrs Jane Brown, will move on to other things—Government Office work, RDS work, back into core MAFF or wherever—or indeed, some will be successful in positions in CAPPA. That process is under way. Obviously we will not have the Director of IS and Director of Finance posts filled by 1 April, but we have made interim arrangements to fill those posts.


 
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