Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 780-799)



  780. The fact that you have reverted from an Agency into a Directorate, how has that affected the way you operate, and has it been for the benefit of you and what you are trying to do not being an Agency, and has that implications for the wider Civil Service?
  (Mr Wooldridge) Just to give you a couple of examples of the benefit. I joined at the beginning of CMPS, so my responsibility was to take this through. Whilst we were an Agency, as a College, there was very much clear water between ourselves and other parts of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Office. By being integrated, in the autumn of 1999, when Civil Service reform was being developed and being launched, it meant that we could work much more closely with the Cabinet Office, with those who were developing that new strategy and rapidly turn that into forms of training; so there was this immediate opportunity to work more closely and to reflect that agenda in our work. And it has the double benefit of us being closer to the corporate agenda and actually making us more attractive to our customers, because we are still working on the basis of charging customers. And just another example of the advantage; by being much more integrated, as CMPS and within the Cabinet Office, we have been able to qualify for money from the Modernisation Fund, and we are spending, over the current two-year period, about £800,000 on research and development work into areas about making change happen, about diversity, about e-learning, and all those things would not have happened, or would not have happened as easily, if we had been a separate Agency. So it has had a directly beneficial effect on us.

  781. And the implications for the other Agencies, the Benefits Agency and other Next Steps Agencies, the fact that you have been brought back into the mainstream Civil Service; does that follow that they should be, as well?
  (Professor Amann) I think it is difficult for me to comment on that. I think all we can do is to explain what the reasons were for the Civil Service College coming within CMPS.

Mr Tyrie

  782. Evidence-informed policy, did I get that right, presumably, the purpose of trying to encourage this approach, or tell me whether it is, is that, by implication, the more evidence and information people have available the more likely they are to edge their way towards a consensus about what decision actually should be taken. Is that the core of the thinking that lies behind evidence-informed policy?
  (Professor Amann) I think that is a possible by-product of it. I think the primary reason is just to get the policy right, in terms of the likely impact it will have on society, through the best social and economic analysis that you can come up with.

  783. But there is not just one solution to a problem, is there?
  (Professor Amann) No.

  784. And there are political choices to be made in this connection?
  (Professor Amann) There are political choices, and I speak really from the standpoint of my experience as a researcher, perhaps, rather than more recently as a civil servant. But in the academic world, too, in economic and social research, which is my area, there are always alternative explanations. But my experience has been that once you really do get into the primary evidence and that is shared between all those in the research team, although differences in interpretation are still there, it does tend to narrow the difference. So there is a by-product of moving perhaps more towards a consensus.

  785. My experience of consensus-based policy-making is that it tends to be pretty disastrous—Dangerous Dogs, Firearms, keeping the hereditary Peerage, creating the Child Support Agency—there is a set of them; and that there is quite a risk with developing a notion in Whitehall that a technocratic set of solutions could become a substitute for political choices, and I just wonder whether you would like to comment on that?
  (Professor Amann) I can comment on that, but I will do so very briefly, because I agree entirely with what you said. I think there is a misconception in evidence-based policy that you can amass evidence, it can be analysed very "objectively", and that somehow policy tumbles out automatically at the end without any political judgement having been applied. That simply will not happen. I think the political judgements will always have to be made, the political differences will always be there, but the decision will be made more sensibly, I think, if everyone concerned is aware of what the evidence is.

  Mr Tyrie: Can I ask just one other set of questions; as you can tell, I remain somewhat sceptical about evidence-informed policy, that is not to suggest that I do not want the evidence, it suggests that I am just wondering, I very much agree with your—

  Chairman: Or uninformed policy?

  Mr Tyrie: I very much agree with the opening remarks, I am doing my best, anyway, to agree with the Chairman.

  Mr White: This consensus will never do.

Mr Tyrie

  786. A consensus; there is a consensus breaking out between me and my Chairman here, briefly, but I will do my best to crush it. But I would like to ask you about one other point you made, right at the beginning, where you said that the Agency structure was a revenue-maximising structure, that therefore they were treating themselves as a cost and revenue centre, going to other parts of the Civil Service and saying, "What do you want?" and the Civil Service were saying, "Well, we'd like this sort of training, please," or, "These sorts of programmes, please," I presume this is how it is operating, and the Agency say, "Okay, we'll lay it on," and then they got lots of ticks in the boxes for having produced the right stuff. You began a little to explain—now it is only a matter of time really, that you did not have time to explain, I am not suggesting you were trying to avoid it—what it was that departments were not asking for which they should have been asking for, which would lead them to higher-quality civil servants, and therefore fewer mistakes?
  (Professor Amann) Yes. The relationship with the customer base was not quite as you have described it, because the relationship was not so much between the Civil Service College and departments, or the Civil Service College and the corporate Civil Service, it was with individual customers who came on courses. The view was taken that that really was not a satisfactory basis for driving forward the Modernising Government agenda, and I was one of those people who were present at the discussion, the early discussion, with the Permanent Secretaries in September 1999, when this agenda was really emerging. By that time, the College was just about to cease to be an Agency, to become a full part of CMPS, and for the first time the College was actually locked into the centre and was hearing at first hand what the major priorities were for better business planning, for the importance that was going to be given to increasing diversity throughout the Civil Service.

  787. This is messages from the departments now, coming to you, telling you what they wanted?
  (Professor Amann) Yes. We have got a much better relationship with individual departments, but also with the Civil Service Management Board, on which all the Permanent Secretaries sit.

  788. I am terribly sorry, it is just sheer ignorance, but I think it is quite important, helping answer the questions that Brian White raised, about the benefits, moving from an Agency to a Directorate; why were you not picking up that information from individuals when they were coming, you were saying that the demand-led pressure in the Agency structure had come through individuals?
  (Professor Amann) Because the individual preferences of members of staff, in thinking about their own career, do not necessarily aggregate to the way that the Civil Service as a whole wishes to develop in the future; and that only comes when the Service as a whole reflects on what its priorities are.

  789. Why did you need to get rid of an Agency to do this, why did you not have departmental-based cost centres, cost and revenue centres? So that, for example, the Department of Health will come to you and say, "What we need is, we need other guys trained up in X, Y and Z; will you do us a course for that?"; and then, if you do it well, they pay you, and if not they find someone else to do it?
  (Professor Amann) It was obviously before my time, but the major reason, as I understand it, is that the economics of the Civil Service College were such that it could not produce the surpluses which would generate the kind of intellectual capital for developing new programmes, developing programmes which in the short term may not be popular, which were costly in any case to develop.

  790. Popular, at the individual level?
  (Professor Amann) Popular, at the individual level.

  791. It may not be popular at the individual level?
  (Professor Amann) Yes.

  Mr Tyrie: But, if you have gone over to a corporate-based revenue structure, what does that matter? You are getting your cheque from the Department of Health. I am sorry, but I am in a genuine fog, I do not understand why you had to smash up the Agency structure to deal with the market failure you raised at the beginning?


  792. Can anyone clear that fog?
  (Mr Wooldridge) I think perhaps one thing that clears the fog, Chairman, is that words like "smash up" imply nothing exists of what happened before. In many ways, we have built on it. There was a successful relationship, and, in fact, as I hinted in my earlier answer, we have not ceased to operate in a very business-like way, and we still benefit from the fact that my predecessors actually ran it as a successful business, responding to individual clients, as we have talked about, but also there was a relationship with departments. But the context of CMPS and being restored back into the Cabinet Office is that no-one has to work on an ever more coherent and consistent dialogue with those departmental clients than happened before. And it has also slightly, enough, sufficiently, taken the pressure off to allow us to do that kind of research and development work to develop the "unpopular" or less popular things. So it is not a step change, we have simply now got a context in which we can more coherently and systematically look at those priority areas and develop them, rather than just playing the market.
  (Professor Amann) I think, if we focus only on the College, Chairman, we may not be getting a complete picture here, because there is a whole other area of training. I wonder if Robert Green might have an opportunity to speak?
  (Mr Green) I think the main point I would make in this context is that, before I moved to CMPS, I was in the Personnel Department in DfEE. As a customer of the training on offer, I found it very confusing, because, at the senior level, which was what I was responsible for, and where my responsibilities now are, senior training provision was split between the Civil Service College, on the one hand, and the Cabinet Office, which used to run programmes like the Top Management Programme, as well. Many programmes had almost the same name, almost the same kind of market: very difficult to make sense of that. And I think one of the things we have clearly been able to do and that departments have said to us we have been able to do is to make sense of that; we have now got one organisation making provision for senior corporate training across the Civil Service. You could argue that that could have been done in different ways, but that is at least one benefit of the approach that has been taken.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that.

Mr Campbell

  793. I think this Committee is obviously sitting, trying to make Government work, it is a hell of a task, Mr Chairman, when we have a look around at ourselves. I have got two particular questions. One is, when should Ministers seek advice on risk assessment when it comes to a policy decision; and the other question is, is the Civil Service capable of providing such advice? And I ask these two questions for two or three reasons, personal reasons, which I have experienced within Government, within the Civil Service; the first one is the coal industry. Even in the last year the coal industry was going through a very bad patch, well, what is left of it, 7,000 miners. There were subsidies going into Europe, and the French were getting it, the Germans were getting it, the Spaniards were getting it, but we were not, and there were only two or three years to run of these subsidies, and we thought we would go along to the Minister and try to save what was left of this industry and get a subsidy and keep it afloat, always possible. The advice we got from the Minister and particularly the Civil Service, was that we could not get on this bandwagon, we could not get this money, so the industry would just have to die. A couple of MPs and a trade union leader went off to Europe, to see the powers that be in Europe, in energy, "No, problem, we'll pay out the money, if the Minister applies for it we'll give him it;" and, of course, a few months after that we get £100 million for the industry. But the civil servants had given the advice that we could not get it; mind, I think one of them got sacked, or pushed sideways, he was pushed away. That is one example of the bad decisions of the Civil Service. The other was BSE. I wonder what happened there. And, of course, the other one, the writing must be on the wall somewhere in the Passports, because we had an inquiry in this Committee, people were standing in queues, in Liverpool, Belfast and London, trying to get a passport, and not one civil servant had seen that coming. So the questions are, basically, is the Civil Service capable of seeing these risks, are they capable of telling the Minister to make Government work better, because that is what we are after, that is what we are trying to get, to make Government work better; are the civil servants too frightened to give the Ministers the answer they are looking for?
  (Professor Amann) I think it is a very deep issue here, about accountability and risk. I think, because of the traditional values of the Civil Service and the very sharp feeling of accountability that senior civil servants feel they have, they are quite averse to taking risks, and this is not just an observation of mine, I think this is something which is well known and widely discussed at the present time. The question is how to move away from that without losing all the benefits of traditional values and a wish to be accountable; the obvious answer to it is much more professional risk management. I think there is a general view that this is an area of weakness in the Civil Service.

  794. Is this why we have got more special advisers now, in Government, because the Civil Service has lost its grip?
  (Professor Amann) No. I am not aware of the argument that deficiency in risk management is connected with political advisers. I think that risk management is connected with other areas in which it is widely appreciated its skills need to be improved, like project management, programme management. One of the real thrusts of the Modernising Government agenda is to move civil servants from being simply administrators of routine processes to being leaders who can actually manage significant projects and can be visible and give advice to Ministers on that basis.

  795. So what you are saying to me is that the passport system, the BSE and the coal industry, they would not have happened, that is what you are saying to me. You are saying, "In my book, if I were opening my book, I would do away with that and there would not be a question of those things happening, because civil servants would see it, they would be better trained, they would observe it, they would say, `Hey, Minister, there's going to be a problem here, you're going to have queues and people fighting outside for passports'"? That is what we are trying to stop; we want to make Government better, not worse, and what we have seen, in the last few years, is worse.
  (Professor Amann) It would certainly make it better. I could not guarantee that it would ever remove entirely some of the cases that you have mentioned. But if we take the Passport Agency as an example then professional risk management might have picked up the point that a very sophisticated IT system might not deliver on time. It might have considered the risks that insufficient staff were trained and not enough time was allocated in order to get the project in.

Mr Tyrie

  796. Do you know for a fact that Ministers were not told those things?
  (Professor Amann) No, I do not know for a fact, I just know something about it and I am just hypothesising about what the factors might have been, and these would be elements in what would have been professional risk management. I think the case of BSE is slightly different, if I may say so, because I think one of the overriding issues there is the communication of risk to the public and the relationship of policy-makers in Government with the public.

Mr White

  797. Is it not true that if it had affected a middle-class person in the South East of England it would have been straight in to the Minister, but because it affected a few Northerners and working-class people in the North it does not matter?
  (Mr Green) If I might just come in on this, not to suggest that this is the complete answer to the problem about professional risk management but just to show that this is very much an issue which CMPS has been trying to tackle. In fact, we have run a series of seminars for Ministers and civil servants and people from outside the Civil Service on the theme of risk, trying to get into this topic in increasing depth, and the very first seminar that we ran, in fact, took the Passport Agency events as a case study. That worked towards a series of seminars, one of which brought Ministers and civil servants together to look at the way we handle major IT projects. And, as I say, I do not pretend this is the complete answer, but I think creating an environment in which Ministers and civil servants can talk honestly with each other about their different perceptions and the issues that they confront is going to be helpful in the long run to developing that sort of understanding. And we have moved on to look at the issues involved in communicating with the public about risk. So it is very much a theme that we have taken forward. And, whilst I am speaking, if I might just return to a point that Mr White made earlier, we have put the results and the summaries of these seminars, which, as I say, involved people from outside the Civil Service, but they are on our website, on the Internet, so they are there for public discussion and debate, and that is very much the way that we want to operate.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that.

Mr Oaten

  798. One of the solutions to Ronnie's problems lies, clearly, in training, and training is only really going to be any good if you have good trainers, and it is encouraging to hear that you are using non-civil servant trainers in relation to risk management. But I just wondered, over the last two years or so, has there been quite a high turnover of the kind of people that you are using to train; in essence, had the people that you were using before left, are you using predominantly outsiders now to train, or are the trainers still individuals who were training before and are part of the Civil Service?
  (Professor Amann) Let me make a start on that, and this is obviously a topic where I can bring in my two colleagues as well. In the corporate programmes, the training is largely provided by presenters who come from outside CMPS, from universities, from management consultancies, chief executives, for example, of major companies; so we look around quite rigorously to identify those individuals who are going to perform well, we assess them, and so forth.

  799. Is that a change from what it used to be?
  (Professor Amann) We are doing more of it now, so it is a change in that sense; but the Top Management Programme has always been run on those kinds of lines, we are constantly looking for very, very good people to present to a rather senior and critical audience. So far as the Civil Service College is concerned, we need to get into the composition of the teaching staff in the Civil Service College. There are, and Ewart will correct me in a moment, I think, something like 80 full-time staff in the Civil Service College, but there are 650 associates of the College, and much of the teaching is done by those associates, so there is a constant renewal of the teaching staff at the College. And novelty and innovation are secured not only by changing the staff but also by we ourselves going outside and trying to look at best practice elsewhere. So one of the things that we did early on in CMPS was to look at comparator organisations throughout the world and see what they were doing—the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, we went to, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and so forth—to see how it was done, what the best ideas are. But perhaps I should turn over first to Robert.
  (Mr Green) I think Ron has said most of it. The only point I would add is that, he is quite right, corporate programmes for senior people are taught almost entirely by people from outside, and really those people fall into two categories, they are the people from business schools and academics, and they are practitioners, they are chief executives, they are chief constables, they are people who are coming not particularly as teachers but as people with a great deal of experience in leadership and tackling the sorts of problems that civil servants and others are going to face. And perhaps I should just say that many of the senior corporate programmes, like the Top Management Programme, are actually not just for civil servants, civil servants are a minority on the Top Management Programme. It is one of the things that keeps us on our toes that we have to attract people from outside the Civil Service. The participants in those programmes often say, actually, they have learned as much from each other, from the mix of people from different sectors that we bring together.
  (Mr Wooldridge) Very briefly, Chairman, I have got nothing to add to the figures that Professor Amann mentioned, but just to make the point that it is not just teaching in a classroom in Sunningdale, or in London, or in Edinburgh; a substantial amount of our work in the Civil Service College Directorate is working inside departments, on a consultancy basis, and I am wanting to encourage that and increase that. So that in itself is a refreshing process, that we are actually dealing directly with individual departments and working with them on a client basis.

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