Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence




  740. Thank you very much indeed for that. Could I just start, provoked by David? I wonder if what you are advocating is not precisely what is happening because nobody believes that anyone is hooked on what you call this binary divide any more? One thing that we know is going on is nationalisation of public services. It is the attempt to run everything from the centre through a highly prescriptive series of performance targets and service agreements run out of the Treasury basically, that in all kinds of ways local authority has been bypassed by quangos and by zones and by particular programmes of all kinds. I do not actually recognise this dragon that has got to be slain. It seems to me it is well and truly dead.
  (Mr Walker) The weight that you put on "highly prescriptive" suggests that it is something that might oppress you. What I would observe is that the kind of advice Ministers might receive when they think about moving forward from that old local authority model is under-informed because their officials will lack genuine grass roots experience of service receipt and delivery. If they do produce—and certainly the implication of what you said was that there is some kind of excess of appointed bodies—some mess in terms of local service, I would argue that that would be in part a result of civil servants' lack of familiarity with local conditions. There might be disagreement round this table about what role specifically elected local authorities would play. All I am saying is, leave that argument aside. Making sure the architecture works in terms of poor children, poor communities, for example, is vitiated to the extent that the centre does not know, does not have first line experience, does not keep itself fully informed of local delivery conditions.

  741. Just so that I am clear, the heart of your proposal is that we have an integrated public service and we sweep away these distinctions which are getting in the way and therefore we make sure that people at every level, particularly those at the top, as you say, understand what front line delivery is all about?
  (Mr Walker) It is probably unfair to name names, but I am going to give you an example. I will not attribute any particular view to this person. It is recently the case that the Chief Executive of the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull came to the end of a rather successful career as Chief Executive, including a spell at Wolverhampton (now the City of Wolverhampton). He should have been specifically the kind of animal the centre should have leapt upon and dragged back into itself to make use of many years—and he is still a relatively young man—of great experience in urban government. As it happens he has taken a public service job and we should be thankful for that. He has become Chief Executive of the Housing Corporation. My point would be (a) that there are far too few of his ilk, and incidentally this man happens to possess a PhD, and (b), the centre should have some capacity for ensuring that the kind of experience accumulated by individuals such as Norman Perry is made available. I would go one stage further and say exactly what you said, Chairman. I think now we have come to the point where a fundamental reconstitution of public service, yes, as a national public service, is necessary.

Mr Tyrie

  742. I agree with your analysis. We have all sorts of problems of delivery of local services. We have this highly prescriptive system coming from the centre without any real accountability by those who are notionally responsible, that is, those who are elected locally. Local democracy has broken down to some degree, as low turnout suggests. There is the difficulty that many MPs, I am sure, have in finding enough people to stand at district council elections in their areas. But what is your answer? The answer briefly for the Conservative Party in the mid to late 1980s in a heady moment of enthusiasm, which led to the poll tax, was, "Let us re-invigorate democracy at local level by delivering a shock to it by linking much more closely what is paid for at local level and who has been elected to allocate that money". That collapsed because the shock resulted in a revolt by voters. There was a shock but it had an undesired effect. Your solution seems to be centralisation really because you are saying that we should now control from the centre not only the policy but also the administrative system of delivery. Have I got that right?
  (Mr Walker) I would put it in terms of honesty, that we need to honestly recognise the fact that across a wide array of services the centre calls the shots financially. The public demand uniform services. We should take those two facts and build them into a reformed system of public administration. I would observe in passing that the crisis or the failure of your bid to regenerate local democracy ten years ago did not lead at the centre to the kind of imaginative re-thinking of the connections between the centre and the periphery, Whitehall and town hall, that you might have thought. Ask yourself the question which department is responsible for central/local relations, and the formal answer is the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, yet, as we know, central/local relations exist in considerable measure across a much wider swathe of departments, from MAFF through to the Department of Social Security. I would fault the central Civil Service for not over the years having invested time and intellectual energy in thinking about itself, its political system, in relationship to the locality. You might still believe that the regeneration of local democracy is possible. All I am saying this afternoon is that we have a problem. The problem is long in the tooth. It is not new to this Government. It existed under the Conservatives. One might have expected more profound thinking about either practical or intellectually impressive solutions to that.

  743. You have come out with a profound thought and I am arguing that it has a profound problem, which is that it will end local democracy. You may say that local democracy is already dead. It has difficulties but I believe it is not dead and many of us round this table probably want to revive it rather than snuff it out. Do you agree that there is a problem and what are you suggesting should be done about it? If you have got a Civil Service that is responsible right across the board, the same uniform body responsible for everything, delivery at the lowest of local levels, what kind of accountability can there conceivably be by those local officials to the local elected councillors?
  (Mr Walker) My first answer would be that it would be a very different animal from the Civil Service that you have been quizzing in this Committee, a Civil Service that had a genuine local rootedness, as it would have to have if it were to be a more effective deliverer of local services. It would look and feel like a different animal. There is a problem, you are right, in terms of traditionally defined accountability but I think as this new century wears on we have to be a lot more rounded in our thinking about accountability. If I could point you to a very interesting pamphlet produced today by someone on your side of the political fence, Graham Mather, about appointed bodies, it interestingly says that we should celebrate the way in which non-elected bodies can bring things to the political administrative party which perhaps elected politicians cannot: expertise, disinterestedness, knowledge and so on. The picture perhaps needs to be argued in a somewhat more rounded way.

  744. I would like to see a lot more detail in your proposal before I became convinced by it. I would like to move on to ask Professor Dunleavy a few questions. Whereas I agree with Mr Walker's analysis but not his conclusions, I am afraid I disagree completely with Professor Dunleavy's analysis in his memorandum. Just taking this list of failures by the Civil Service, let us take the first one, the poll tax. In what respect did the Civil Service fail with respect to the poll tax?
  (Professor Dunleavy) A traditional Civil Service role has always been to be a guardian of institutional memory, to provide a kind of collective repository of inherited wisdom. In the past when Ministers have contemplated restructuring local government finance in radical ways they have often been given advice that this would be quite difficult to do and have backed off from that. If you look at the studies that have been completed on the history of the poll tax, and particularly the book by David Butler and colleagues, it seems that the Department of the Environment Permanent Secretary refused to play that role throughout the poll tax period and in particular when the Government took an initial plan, which was for a phased introduction of the community charge, and then progressively telescoped that into a sort of big bang introduction, there was no Civil Service advice against that and Ministers seem not to have been briefed on quite technical and detailed aspects that should have been considered such as the sort of gearing factor that comes into play if people do not pay poll tax. The gearing factor comes into play such that the burden for everybody else who is still paying rises and then you get increased resistance and so on. None of this seemed to have been explained to Ministers at the stages when they made decisions to move from a phased to a big bang process. There does seem to have been a failure of Civil Service and departmental advice and that is certainly the conclusion of that major study of the episode which I do not think is a politically slanted study.

  Mr Tyrie: My view of the study was that it was very interesting but completely wrong.

  Mr White: You were not there at the time, were you?

Mr Tyrie

  745. As papers come forward we will see those. As a matter of fact I was in the Department of the Environment when the local government finance studies that you refer to were being drawn up and I was in the Treasury when papers were prepared in enormous detail on the administrative problems that you are referring to, which were of course sent round to all the people on the Cabinet Committee, and the authors of that book knew that too because I told them. Likewise, the gearing problem to which you refer generated massive tables trying to extrapolate what the effect of the gearing would be on different sectors of society and indeed different regions within the country. I have never seen anything set out in more exhaustive detail nor more commitment by a set of officials to make sure that Ministers knew in the greatest possible detail what the consequences of the policy they were taking would be. The responsibility for the poll tax failure lies entirely with Ministers and nowhere else and that has been shown in a number of memoirs which have come out. Those participants who were fiercely against it internally have referred to some of this work that was done at the time. Rather than go through all this list of yours in immense detail—there is a whole host of things which all look completely up the spout. Just take an example, you suggest that the advice given on Trident was wrong. The key element on Trident was the fear of costs overrun. But Trident came in under budget. We can go through these one by one. It is true that we definitely had some poor advice on BSE but is this not, if I may use the word, an infection that seems to be going round other parts of the continent at the moment? Germany introduced and then had to withdraw a withholding tax, a most ignominious tax retreat, in the late 1980s, and there was some discussion before you came in of a huge blood transfusion scandal in France as well. Maybe you want to reply to that. Maybe I can briefly turn to another of your thoughts, which is that what we all need to do is to go off and do a PhD before we are allowed to get to work in the Civil Service. I have to say that, of the people I have come across in the Civil Service in my five years when I was there, there was no correlation between those who had higher academic qualifications to do the job and the quality of advice, but of course that is very subjective. There was a correlation, and this bears out another point that David was certainly making, between people who had experience of other walks of life and the ability to offer good advice, and rather than three years locked in a large cupboard writing 100,000 words I would have thought three years doing another job would be very valuable. Could you possibly tell me whether there is any evidence to suggest that academics or people who have full academic training, that is, a PhD and beyond, are better civil servants than those who have not?
  (Professor Dunleavy) Can I just deal with one particular point you made earlier on? As I noted in my memo, any possible listing of policy disasters is bound to be controversial and people may pick on individual items and discuss them.

  746. I did pick on the first and the last.
  (Professor Dunleavy) Sure. If one just looked at the Trident programme, and it is a very substantial programme costing about 30 billion, one might think that there was a problem in committing to a programme of that kind ten years before you actually pay for it and then having to pay for it at a time when the threat for which you had originally devised the programme has more or less disappeared. In other ways, as you mentioned, it certainly came in under budget.

  Mr Tyrie: But that was a policy decision. The decision to deliver it was a policy decision taken by the Ministers in the full knowledge of the implications, and indeed with private consultations between the Government and the Opposition.


  747. Can I just say I suspect we are not going to do justice to these policy failures of our time, interesting though it is to have them ventilated, and perhaps we can move on to Andrew's further point.
  (Professor Dunleavy) Far be it from me to underestimate the previous Government's mistakes. I think the argument in the memo is not that everybody should have a PhD and that people should not get into policy making ranks in the Civil Service until they have spent three or fours years in the study. The comment was that in terms of the subjects that British civil servants have studied, in terms of the level of training that they have had, they are very unusual. Only two per cent of senior US civil servants have humanities or history degrees. The rest have what we might think of as more relevant degrees. The point was also that in most areas of social life now postgraduate training has become quite important even in business. It is much more important in the private sector in Britain to have postgraduate training than it is in the Civil Service. Certainly there is a huge gap between, let us say, Civil Service departments and management consultant firms. There is a huge difference in the level of educational qualifications and professional qualifications. David mentioned the binary divide. One of the aspects of the binary divide between the centre and local government is that the people in local government at senior levels all have professional qualifications and very few of the people with whom they are interacting in the senior Civil service will have the same thing. Actually, if you have three years' undergraduate training and then you have sat in your office reading cardboard files for a very long period of time and responding to short term political emergencies and taking the odd, not very well run, Civil Service training course, you are professionally under-qualified to be making major decisions that stretch over long periods of time and involve large amounts of public money. That is the argument.

  748. I just have to say that I think you are totally out of touch with what is going on in the Civil Service and the phrase that Civil Service training courses are academically uncertified is pretty insulting to some quite specific training that goes on now in the Civil Service today. The line that you have taken that everybody is sitting around reading cardboard files on short term issues is also completely at odds with my experience of certainly what was going on in the Treasury during my five years there. My question was whether there is any evidence that these countries who have got these high powered PhDs are doing any better. Do you think the US is better run? Are they good at running elections, for example?
  (Professor Dunleavy) I think these are very interesting and different questions. I have not myself asserted, and I would not like to assert, that there is a direct connection between the level of educational and professional development of the staff and the performance of complete government systems because there are political variables, as I think your comments have already stressed to us. My impression of the US federal government is that it is very efficiently run administratively but it is hampered by very serious constitutional and political constraints and I would have thought the same was true in Britain too. I would not say that there is any overall case that could be made here. All I am saying is that the British system is now very unusual among advanced industrial societies. It is very unusual within Britain that we do lifelong career recruitment of people who have relatively little education and then we provide them with relatively little further development over the course of their careers. My experience, talking to senior civil servants, is that they will say to you that there is never a moment to breathe, there is never a moment to take time out, there is never a moment to stretch yourself intellectually, there is a constant rush of short run issues and departments are very reluctant to release staff or to support staff in their own time in enhancing their level of professional qualifications. I think the Civil Service has provided some support for a Masters in Public Administration programme and 150 people over six years have graduated through that, but that is the only commitment.

  749. There is one bit which I do agree with in your paper but I have not got the answer; I have only got the question, so I'd like to see if you have got the answer. You are absolutely right that the Cabinet Office is a nightmare; it is Byzantine. We have been distributed the organisation chart of the Cabinet Office and I spent half an hour moving round it with my pencil following these arrows trying to work out what all this meant. As a matter of fact I have not met anybody who does know what it means. What I want to ask you is whether that actually tells us very much about whether the Civil Service is efficiently run or whether that tells us something about the way the Civil Service wants to present or is able to present the way it is run. In other words, do we think that those are the genuine lines of accountability with the formal thing in the centre, and do we think that things are really as bad as that?
  (Professor Dunleavy) I think the Civil Service reform plan that Sir Richard Wilson has outlined tacitly admits that the so-called corporate centre in the Civil Service has been a neglected animal for the last ten or 15 years. Of course, the bulk of Civil Service activity is going to take place at departmental and agency level and that is where all the effort has been put. But it is important to ask questions about the Civil Service as a whole. It is important for political parties drawing up programmes and it is important for the taxpayer. The Civil Service costs us about 21 billion a year to run. Staff development inside that, for example, is probably about two billion pounds. The potential for saving money by progressing electronic governance literally runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. The question is, will departments and agencies do all that they should do when left to their own devices or should there be a stronger corporate centre that pushes overarching issues of great importance? I think the evidence is that the corporate centre is very weak and that the current structure in the Cabinet Office is almost incomprehensible to anybody outside the Cabinet Office.

  750. And also ineffective.
  (Professor Dunleavy) And very ineffective.

  751. We are agreed it is incomprehensible but my point is, is it also ineffective?
  (Professor Dunleavy) What you have is a lot of units who are beavering away, who write quite interesting and well intentioned reports, some of them with quite radical criticisms of the current system, and then there is no follow through after that. Some units, like the Performance and Innovation Unit, will assemble a team, produce a report, split the team up. It is then very unclear who, if anybody, is progressing the ideas that were set out.

Mr White

  752. Shall we talk today about David Walker's model because it seemed to me that it ignored some of the more complex situations we have found ourselves in and you have ignored the whole aspect of European regulation, the issue of regional government, the issue of the devolved governance, and at a local level the realisation that was in a PIU report recently which talked about the role of quangos and its effect on localities and the whole question of public/private partnerships. Does that not make the situation far more complex in terms of this single public service model that you were talking about?
  (Mr Walker) I am not sure it does. As you know, regional development agencies as they exist are non-Civil Service bodies. Yes, there are Government offices in the regions but they are pretty small and to my best knowledge pretty integrated in a cultural sense into their parent departments. In terms of United Kingdom participation in Europe and other international bodies there is not any real sense in which the personnel in Brussels, for example, are offshore in any cultural or administrative sense. Yes, devolution is already making a considerable difference, certainly to Scotland, in terms of Civil Service attitudes, in terms of the way we think about a United Kingdom-wide Civil Service. It is probably going to be the case that there will be further differentiation of perhaps pay, certainly administrative norms, between those who are responsible ultimately to the Scottish Executive and those who work for the Whitehall Civil Service with some question mark over the future of public service in Wales. I am not sure that that diversity tells against the problem that I am laying before you and it may be that the potential for a solution is by recognising how in so many ways there will have to be a local solution to national deficits in administration and in a sense vice versa.

  753. Is not one of the issues that all the organisational change can go ahead but if you do not make the budgets into that organisational change it does not matter a row of beans?
  (Mr Walker) Is that not precisely one of the problems with local government at the moment, that first of all budgetary responsibility is largely centrally set? It means local authorities are basically becoming administrators of a centrally set budget, or, adverting to your point about complexity, if one thinks, for example, of a programme such as Sure Start which is very important in terms of the life chance of poor children, tracing the lines of budgetary responsibility has become almost an exercise to parallel your investigation of the organisational chart of the Cabinet Office. It is very complicated. I suppose I am seeking ways in which we can actually make the system simpler and if that does in a sense recognise that local authorities are agents of the centre de facto, maybe moving that to a de jure position is something we have to accept in terms of the service. I am not, obviously, ruling out the maintenance of a local elected link. I am thinking about the way that local services are currently delivered in these conditions of high complexity.

  754. Just taking you down this road further and the role of scrutiny and accountability, it seems to me that one of the interesting things about politics as we are at the moment is the rise of one-off pressure groups for different issues. There is a whole range of one-off pressure groups on any number of subjects and a distant connection with traditional political parties which have the all-encompassing point of view that linked into the kind of one-off solutions that seem to be an action zone on this or a team for that. Is there a way that you see those two issues of accountability and relationship to the political process being linked in any reforms of the Civil Service?
  (Mr Walker) This is a difficult one because you will know that the empirical evidence suggests that people in their responses to questions about competence in government generally do dissociate their feelings about parties and politicians from their feelings about the public services that are delivered by the systems run by those self-same politicians, and that is particularly true about local government, that people's assessment of town halls is often negative but their appreciation of street services and so on is often highly positive. What that may suggest is that for most people the mechanism of service delivery is not terribly important. What does matter is the result, which leaves legislators such as yourselves with a problem, does it not, because one wants to reform the process of delivery to ensure greater accountability and effectiveness. That very process of reform is not of a great deal of interest to people out here who are concerned with services and a political trick obviously is to associate service improvement with changes in the machine. I suppose again that is where my contribution comes in because what I am desperately concerned about is ensuring that there is a better delivery system so that at the end of the day the public will register qualitative improvements in services perhaps as a result of some better alignment of centre and locality.

  755. One final question to both of you is that the Civil Service has been traditionally good at constructing the legislation in a language which none of us can understand. The regulations are incomprehensible to anyone who tries to read them. They have not really looked at the role of implementation, the effect that that legislation or regulation, red tape, actually has on the ground. The regulation may be very good and the classic one, I think, is the working families tax credit which is a brilliant piece of policy. The Act was quite good but the regulations are incomprehensible to somebody who is trying to deliver them. Is that not part of the problem that we have got at the moment, that we are the most deregulated country in Europe but we are the ones that have the most complaints about our regulations?
  (Mr Walker) You make a number of very good points. It is an odd problem, is it not, that, despite perhaps what Patrick was saying, there are ways in which even the most complicated piece of legislation, often involving a vast array of statutory instruments, have in fact been delivered by the system but the very delivery has led to increased dissension on the part of the public seeing the results of this complexity? If I may put this point to you as Members of the House of Commons, one way forward here might surely be, and I hope this does not sound too pious, even more pre-legislative scrutiny by yourselves, not just of primary legislation but also of the mass of secondary legislation which often passes through this place on the nod. I realise that can cause all sorts of problems in terms of your time and energy but that could be part of the solution as well.

Mr Turner

  756. Could I follow that up? It seems to me that one of the things you are saying is that Whitehall is, if you like, the person who pays and the town hall is the one who actually delivers and it is the problem that you have in that which is causing a lot of the difficulties there. One of the witnesses we had on the SERPS problem, Dame Ann Bowtell, indicated that one of the difficulties was that because the Benefits Agency was delivering it and it was the Policy Unit which produced the actual policy on that, there was a black hole in the delivery and the telling of people what the new policy was fell into that. It seems to me that that is the difficulty we are having between Whitehall as the policy maker and the town hall as the deliverer of services.
  (Mr Walker) What has happened, has it not, is that you have had, to try and bridge that gap, the construction of a great array of new regulatory bodies of which, if I can say this in the presence of one of its former servants, the Audit Commission stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is a very important agency but in a sense it was felt to be needed to fill precisely the gap that you have identified. If the centre cannot trust local government to deliver, it then builds an apparatus of OFSTEDs and Audit Commissions and so on (and the legion has grown in recent years) to try and give itself more confidence in delivery. What I am trying to say is that we now need to think about ways in which, perhaps by bringing locality and centre closer together, we might actually make some important savings in the cost of the regulatory apparatus, but at the end of the day you see services better delivered as a result.

  757. It seems to me that the vast majority of problems we have had have been created by central rather than local government. If you look at this, Professor Dunleavy comes down on it, and if you go back 20 years I would have added that one of the most ineffective policies that was forced on local government was the housing policy; not merely was it a disaster financially, it was a disaster for many, many families. That was not done by local government, that was done by central government. Should we not be saying to central government, "You are the ones that cannot deliver, you should be trusting local government because they are the ones that do deliver". Perhaps you should start to come together a little bit more and get rid of that black hole in the middle.
  (Mr Walker) Perhaps we need to move beyond the cycle that was seen on both sides, during Conservative time and in the past three and three quarter years, to try and think of an administrative system which recognises many of your constituents, who I am sure will want the same kind of service delivered to them as their neighbours in west Lancashire. They will not want to see major differences, which seems to point in the direction of an administration system which does ensure that local areas can rely on broadly the same provision of finance for services. I think the logical step beyond that is to look at the kind of agent and public servant who is delivering and move away from what we have now, which is this broken-backed system. You are quite right, one side can often blame the other. I am not saying that one should do away with the local democratic element, that should remain in terms of the people who are responsible in an executive sense. It could and should be the same here, centrally, as locally.

  758. That seems to be flying in the face of what you said earlier, maybe I was misinterpreting here. I got the impression you were saying that local government was moving into a position of being solely an agent of central government. If you take education, I think you are right, we would want a standard of education which is fairly national, but in many other respects it might be the provision of other services which would be very much a local decision, and that would not be covered by central government diktat, or want to be.
  (Mr Walker) If you did list those services which were so generally local there would be no interest with them outside the local area—and nowadays it would be a very small list—I would cite in response to that street lighting, where it is the case, partly because we have the same kind of engineers and people in one area, people would not tolerate differential lumen power in their street lights. That has now escalated to a national sort of level. The other point to make is that large numbers of education services are being delivered outwith elected local government: vocational training, for example, which is a huge area now in the hands of the central quango. With special education, and so on and so forth, it is no longer the case that local authorities are the main provider of such traditional services.

  759. I am not sure what Professor Dunleavy said, could I ask for a public response? Is the control of higher education moving away from local government and is that more effective than it was previously?
  (Mr Walker) Your own Government are in the middle of reorganising vocational education, we ought to wait and see what the learning skills will deliver. Many people are quite critical of the text, partly because of their own business, not always because of an absence of councillors, although that may have been a factor in some areas. Again, I would not want to be drawn into saying whether councillors have a bright or not so bright future. All I am trying to say this afternoon is when we think about the people who are engaged in service delivery, the way we differentiate between the people who are qualified for top jobs in the DfEE, on the one hand, and those who become chief education officers, does not seem to be a rational response to the needs of the people to be educated or have their children educated.


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