Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 834 - 839)




  834. Could I welcome our witnesses, on behalf of the Committee, and thank you very much for coming along and helping us with our general inquiry into making government work. I would particularly like to welcome Geoff Mulgan who is the Director of the Performance and Innovation Unit, and Ann Steward who is the Director of e-Government in the Office of the e-Envoy, and supporting cast. I understand that perhaps the two of you would like to say something by way of introduction. If so, by all means do.

  (Mr Mulgan) Yes. First of all, I would like to thank you for the invitation. We are very grateful for the chance to take part in what has been a fascinating series of deliberations. I want to make a couple of points by way of introduction. First of all, I would like to say that I have only actually been in my current post for about four months, which is one of the reasons why I have brought along two colleagues—Jamie Rentoul and Stephen Aldridge—who have worked in PIU since its creation and therefore can answer some questions more authoritatively than I can. Secondly, as the paper which has been circulated to you I hope makes clear, we see our role very much as being about achieving practical change on the ground. We are not in the business just of producing reports, and the memorandum sets out some of the results that have already been achieved by PIU projects in the past. The focus on implementation and results is absolutely essential to where we are going as a unit. The final thing to say is that we are, in a sense, an innovation as a unit, and attempt to be self-critical, to be willing to learn, to recognise where we are not getting things right. I would very much welcome your feedback, your contribution to what is for us a continuing process of trying to improve our work.

  835. Thank you very much for that. Ms Steward?
  (Ms Steward) Thank you. Again, can I thank you very much for the opportunity to come and be part of the session here this afternoon. We have provided a short memorandum on my areas of activity and what I have responsibility for. I thought it might be useful to give you a flavour of the progress that has been made since we launched e-Government in April of last year. Perhaps I could focus on about three areas and introduce those. We went live with our Citizen Portal in December of last year. That is an important initiative that the Government has taken on board. That really is about our efforts to join up government information content on the Internet and so to make it easier for citizens to gain access to government information, and then, in support of that, to enable the citizens to have secure transactions. We are also working on what we call the Government Gateway, a piece of infrastructure to help bridge the back office and the front web-facing services to citizens. Finally, I think, on the progress that we are making overall in terms of our online services, our report that was released yesterday indicates that 40 per cent of those services we have identified as being able to be put online are actually online now. Thank you.

  836. Thank you very much for that introduction. Perhaps I could kick off with some general questions. I think, Geoff Mulgan, you are a unique resource for this Committee, because you have been thinking about the public sector and how it works, and should work, for these many years in different roles. I would like, if we could, to tap into that, to help us with our thinking. I must say, I did stumble across a splendid article you wrote just ten years ago, in 1991, in that late-lamented journal Marxism Today, where you say this: "Public sector remains in the midst of a profound long-term crisis that will dominate the politics of the 1990s as much as the 1980s. The root causes of this crisis are economic, the interaction of a remorseless rise in the cost of providing services and steadily growing demands." Is that still your view on the central problem that the public sector faces?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think public sectors around the world probably do still face precisely those tasks. The unit I now run is responsible for trying, in a small way, to address two parts of that. One is how to increase the performance of Government as a whole within limited resources. In addition, what was not emphasised in that quotation is that Government has to innovate, to become more enterprising, more imaginative in its use of its own resources, its people, its structures. It is a long time since I wrote that article.

  837. No, it is a splendid article. It is unfair and horrible when people take you back to things you have written before, but in this case it seems to me to be entirely illuminating of where we are now. The reason I asked that question is obviously the approach that you bring to thinking about Government and about how it operates; it is obviously structured by what you think Government is, and what you think the central tasks are that it has to get hold of. If the central task is somehow to resolve that dilemma that you identified, then how you approach state services will be entirely different if you identify the task as being rather different, so it is rather important to know whether you still attach yourself to that broader view of what you think Government is all about.
  (Mr Mulgan) I should say that in my current role I am commissioned with specific tasks by the Prime Minister, by Government as a whole, and we as a unit work according to briefs which we are given. Most of the PIU's work, as you will see from the document, is to do with fairly discrete policy issues like adoption, or renewable energy which we are working on at the moment, and some structural issues within Government like the organisation of regional offices. That is, broadly speaking, the main business of the PIU and will be for the foreseeable future, working very much on a project basis on specific issues where hopefully over relatively short periods of time—our projects tend to be completed within six to nine months—we can make significant breakthroughs in understanding of the issues and come up with very specific recommendations which can be fairly quickly put into effect. So to that extent, we are part of a rather pragmatic approach to policy-making; we are not particularly in the business of creating grand visions or grand analyses of the tasks facing Government. I think our value-added, and the test for us, is whether, on those practical projects, we really do achieve advances.

  838. I understand that, but your argument was, it seems to me—I was convinced by it—that unless one had a grand vision, then pragmatic initiatives would come to nought, because they had to be consistent with this broader view of what the public sector wants. I can see I am not going to press you very much further on that. What I do want to know is, again as someone who is doing it now, but having thought about it for a long time, broadly speaking—and you are among friends, you can talk to us—what is your analysis of what is wrong with the way that we do Government now and in the past, for which initiatives like your own are designed to be a remedy?
  (Mr Mulgan) My opinions have not greatly changed since being outside Government, and I think they are probably fairly widely shared. Much of the rationale behind the creation of units like the PIU, the SEU, and many of the reforms which have taken place in recent years, have been trying to address a series of problems, things which are seen to be failing in the system: insufficient capacity to innovate, to be entrepreneurial, to be able to link in to the best thinking in the rest of British society and indeed worldwide; capacity to reform; to be efficient, to use resources in ways that actually meet customers' needs rather than the needs of producers; a culture which to some extent was not sufficiently reflecting British society as it currently is in terms of diversity of employment and a whole series of other aspects. One of the big themes which again has been talked about for many years, one of the big critiques of Government in practice is that it is short-termist in its behaviour, as are politicians and ministers, and a high long-term price is paid for that. So in all of those respects I think there is a fairly widely shared analysis of some of the things which are wrong within Government and within the public sector as a whole, which a whole host of different reforms and institutions, including the PIU, are trying to address, as indeed is the e-Envoy Office. Only time will tell how successful they are, whether they are going far enough or, indeed, whether the analysis is absolutely spot on, but I think a lot of progress is being made, and that progress can only be made because there is a widely shared analysis of what is wrong.

  839. The word is that you are the person who gave us the term "joined-up Government" for which you either deserve enormous credit or discredit. Could you tell us whether we had unjoined-up Government before, and also how we are to do it?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think it is a rather ugly phrase "joined-up Government", and I am not certain that I did in fact coin it. Much of what Government has to do has to be organised in vertical structures, with clear lines of accountability, functionally divided structures, but it has very long been recognised, back to Haldane and indeed before, that many of the tasks which Government has to address in our current era—issues such as small firms competitiveness, social exclusion, the environment, the family—do not fit well into those functional, vertical hierarchies; that the needs of citizens are not easily sliced up into those functional silos, and that therefore in some fields, and in a variety of different ways, Government needs to operate more horizontally, more joined up, more holistically—you can use whatever language you like. That can sometimes be achieved through the ways in which budgets are structured; it can sometimes be achieved through the ways in which ministerial responsibilities are structured; it can sometimes be achieved through the ways in which particular things like technology are organised across departmental boundaries; and sometimes it can be addressed through creating units either in the centre of Government or within departments, but which have a cross-cutting remit covering fields beyond their traditionally set departmental boundary. All of those different tools are currently being used to try to make Government more joined up than it has been in the past. Inevitably those horizontal aspects have to co-exist with what is still primarily a set of vertical structures responsible for delivering services and achieving results in very clearly defined areas. This is not a specifically UK debate and discussion; other governments all around the world have been grappling with the same issues. Past British Governments have tried to be more joined up in different ways and with varying degrees of success, and I am sure that in ten or 15 years' time your equivalents and my equivalents will still be grappling with how to achieve it. It is clearly very difficult to achieve the right balance between the horizontal and the vertical.

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