Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 900 - 914)



  900. What work is being done on publicising that?
  (Mr Czerniawski) The Citizen Portal is part of a much broader initiative on UK online and there is another strand of it which is mainly the responsibility of another part of the Office of the E-envoy, which is about developing a network of what are called online centres, many of them based in public libraries and other public places, that provide not just the technical equipment to allow people who do not have access at home to get access to the Internet and start to use it but also an environment of training and encouragement, because we recognise that this is not just a question of making technology available; it is helping people to access it and developing confidence in it.

Mr White

  901. When Finland did exactly what you talked about they found that 16-year-old kids were monopolising the kiosks and public portals and therefore they moved to a system where they involved voluntary groups and went out and got access that way. They had those kind of problems three years ago. Have you resolved those problems in the UK or are you going to repeat the same process that they had?
  (Mr Czerniawski) I am not close enough to the detail of that project to be able to give you an answer on that. I think perhaps if you are interested in the exact structure of the centres we could give you a note on it. There will be an awful lot of local variation. They will not just be in formal areas like libraries. There will be a range of other people who are interested—providers—in providing. Some particularly target at that younger age group.

  Mr White: The PITCOM report might be worth reading.

Mr Trend

  902. Can I just say in terms of the Government's Internet services the bits I find useful I find incredibly useful, but it is finding them that is difficult. Anything with a government suffix strikes me in that way as well. It is still much too complicated. When I watch my children intuitively find their way around some mega company site, there is an element which so characterises Internet as being used to help people, but the Government's Internet site is very like the government, it is very hierarchical, very complex and there is a lot of secret information which only people who really know how to operate it can access. Reading your e-Government document I have to say it is not terribly informative. It is a very Civil Service not very modern Silicon Valley approach to life. It is structural rather than intuitive.
  (Ms Steward) Again, I think in terms of the work that we are trying to take forward it is to look at the opportunities to be much more innovative and cross-cutting to bring information together in packages that are more relevant. However, it is a change programme that we are going through. It is not just from the centre, it is an overall change programme.

  903. Thank you. Mr Mulgan, you got me going when you mentioned the CPRS. There are various similarities between you. It started in order to look forward, look outwards, not backwards, to make policy, to check up on things. It was located in the Cabinet Office, it reported to the Prime Minister and it turned into the Policy Unit. In a sense this is another attempt to do the same thing again. What is your relationship with the Policy Unit, Number Ten?
  (Mr Mulgan) The CPRS, if I remember rightly, co-existed with the Policy Unit for eight years at least and had a rather different role. It was abolished by Margaret Thatcher because she did not think it was useful any more in 1982-83, I cannot remember exactly. We have within PIU an entirely different role from the Policy Unit. The Policy Unit operates within Number Ten, it operates in a particular set of roles for the Prime Minister. We by contrast have a pretty demarcated task which is in-depth policy analysis, strategic analysis of individual policy issues with quite significant time invested by teams looking at the issues. The political involvement in our projects comes through having sponsor ministers who are used as sounding boards and indeed through the departmental ministers responsible for implementation. There is a pretty clear division of labour. There are several lessons for us from the CPRS. One is about the importance of practical implementation. All units at the centre of government have an inherent problem in ensuring that what they do achieves change on the ground, in the real world and is not just about publishing reports that sit on a shelf. The CPRS was sometimes very effective but some of their reports did not have very much impact at all. Equally, any unit like ours has to retain the confidence of the Prime Minister and other ministers, and if that is gone then it is very hard for us to be useful. I think, equally, rather like the CPRS, it is important for a unit such as ours to retain the confidence of a much wider community and a big difference between us and them is we operate in a much more open way. The CPRS tended to publish, at most, one report a year. All of our work is published. You have been discussing in the last section issues around privacy and data-sharing. We are now well advanced on a project looking at precisely this issue of how to balance joining up data in government and assuring the citizen that they can be confident that data is not being abused. You can read the advisory group minutes of that project on the web. The report will be published. We engage in very extensive open consultations with a huge range of stakeholders in it, from lobby groups to businesses and so on. That is a big change in the style of how government works compared to the CPRS era. Personally I think it is essential for getting better informed policy making. It also helps at the implementation stage if everyone in the field has understood the process of thinking.

  904. I understand that. I am interested in what the architecture tells us about the balance of power in government. The CPRS was certainly content in a pure Rothschild form to attempt to do a number of things that you do. It became the Policy Unit really, I suspect, as the Civil Service learnt how to deal with it. Your remit is to extend—this may be controversial—the role of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office into departments. You would understand somebody saying that?
  (Mr Mulgan) I would disagree. As I have been trying to say, we are only successful to the extent that we work with departments. Many of our projects are proposed by departments. We try, wherever possible, to get officials from departments onto our teams to work on a project and then go back to the department for the job of implementation. We have ministers attached to our projects to guide them through and then to take responsibility for implementation. To the extent that we are seen as the centre supplanting the role of departments, I suspect long run we are unlikely to be successful and departments will try and do what they can to see off our proposals and recommendations. I think that has been the problem with similar units in the centre in the past, that they have had too confrontational a relationship with departments. It is true we report directly to the Prime Minister. There are clear advantages in terms of our overall authority and credibility, but there is also a very practical advantage in that we are located within the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office which enables us to be much more plugged into the day-to-day workings of government with an overview of what is happening right across government, which would be harder if we were an entirely detached unit within the Cabinet Office. So for all of those reasons I hope that we have struck the right balance between being part of the centre, having a clear line of reporting accountability to the Prime Minister, but equally working in a pretty collegiate and consultative way with all departments, with officials and ministers. I would emphasise that government is in many ways a collaborative exercise and works best to the extent that there is wide understanding of the issues and a wide buy-in to the proposals that come out of the projects of the kind we do.

  905. You mentioned that the standing and authority of your work is due to a certain extent to the direct link to the Prime Minister. How does that work? How often do you see him? How is your relationship with him structured?
  (Mr Mulgan) I do not think the issue is particularly how much we see him. We report to him through Sir Richard Wilson. The projects which the PIU does are commissioned by the Prime Minister formally and are reported back to him, and he decides what then happens to them, if they are put into effect, and so forth. In practice, much of the work of a unit like ours is done in correspondence rather than by face-to-face meetings. I would also emphasise that all of our conclusions and the great majority of PIU projects end up in reports which are published as government policy, not as recommendations. Those go through a process of collective agreement. Again, all of the ways in which we work, the very collaborative and open way we work, is in part designed to ensure it is easier to secure collective agreement for what are often quite radical proposals.

  906. But the process of collective agreement has changed over some years, and has increasingly changed in the last three or four, in that the Cabinet no longer meets for the length it used to do, and it no longer seems to have the same sort of function. The disagreements between the various ministers who are responsible in the end to Parliament appear to be exorcised in different ways, perhaps in rather less transparent ways than used to happen. That must cut across the whole Civil Service and make units like yours potentially much more powerful in confusing where responsibility lies—in a political sense, not in a Civil Service sense.
  (Mr Mulgan) To the extent that all of our reports lead to very precise recommendations and tasks which are allocated to individual departments, those Ministers make absolutely sure that they have a say about what they are then going to be tasked to do.

  907. Will they come and see you?
  (Mr Mulgan) We will go and see them. One of the reasons we have a sponsor minister attached to every project we do is to ensure that they play a role in brokering agreement between ministers, ensuring that everyone is fully involved right from the start and that so far as possible there are not too many conflicts and bust-ups and as far as possible the Prime Minister does not need to be involved in acting as referee.

  908. I think that is a change in that not so long ago people would have gone to see the ministers. I suspect in this the ministers have to work much harder to stop other units from doing things that they perhaps do not want to do or would cause problems with relationships with other departments, and therefore the feeling that the centre is becoming much stronger must be increased by the sort of work you do. It may be efficient but it may not be accountable.
  (Mr Mulgan) I think accountability is absolutely clear. If what you are implying was the case it would be surprising if departments were proposing that we should take the lead responsibility on topics which were within their remit, which is happening to a considerable extent at the moment.

  909. If the Prime Minister wants to do that through the extension of his operation of patronage, ministers will oblige him.
  (Mr Mulgan) What I am saying is that they are making proposals, off their own bat, of topics which they would like the PIU to do which are often topics related to their department's responsibility. They think that taking a cross-cutting approach to it, and the PIU approach, would have a better prospect of achieving results than doing it in a traditional way within the department. I would emphasise that the first thing we do when we are starting any project is we go and talk to all the ministers with responsibility for that area. I do not think we could be successful long run unless we did that.

  Mr Trend: It seems to me that under the camouflage of a horizontal exercise we are in fact getting a vertical exercise.


  910. They do not say "get off our patch"?
  (Mr Mulgan) When the PIU was established—and I think the same was true of the Social Exclusion Unit—there was not necessarily huge enthusiasm in departments about what appeared at first glance to be parts of the centre coming and taking over their responsibilities. One of the successes of these central units—and this is a success again which I can take no credit for because it happened when I was not responsible for them—is that they have established sufficient credibility and legitimacy that most departments, ministerially and officially, see that they are adding value. They are helping to solve problems which are not easily solvable within the traditional mechanisms and traditional vertical structures of departments. That is quite a surprising result. Two or three years ago I would not have expected there was the same support for these central units across Whitehall.

  911. When your bit of the process ends, the project teams dissolve, it is handed over to a department to run with it; is that right? You do not have a role in pursuing what you have done through the system? Because we have heard from task forces that they sit around in a joined-up way having interesting cross-cutting thoughts, they deliver the products of these deliberations to the system and the system in a "systems way" manages to absorb it in a traditional departmental way. Why does that not happen to you—or does it?
  (Mr Mulgan) No, for a number of reasons. First of all, because our reports are published as government policy not as recommendations. Most task force reports are published as recommendations to government. Ours are only published after collective agreement by the ministers who then have to put them into effect. Secondly, because the reports contain detailed recommendations, are clear who is responsible for carrying them out, are clear about the timescales within which they have to be carried out, so there is transparent public accountability. Thirdly, because they generally have identified a time period within which a named minister or more than one minister has to report back to the Prime Minister overall on how the recommendations have been implemented. Finally, because, wherever possible, we try and tie in the conclusions of reports into the definition of PSAs, SDAs and spending review processes, so that the PSX machinery can take over some of the role in following through implementation.

  912. The Wiring it Up report, which was extremely interesting, is due to be reflected in implementation about now. Is it being and how should we know it has been?
  (Mr Mulgan) I would like to ask Stephen Aldridge, who played a leading role in writing that report, to comment on that. We are due to have a report on progress early in 2001, as you will be aware. That report has already had a huge effect on how Whitehall works, how budgets are set and so on—again rather more than one might have anticipated at the time. Perhaps Stephen would like to comment.
  (Mr Aldridge) In terms of impacts and outcomes to date, the submission that we tabled gives some indication of the sorts of results that have been achieved to date. Just to summarise a few of them. The cross-cutting approaches were followed up in the Spending Review. We had some 15 cross-cutting reviews. The proposals for cross-cutting objectives and targets have been picked up in the various Public Service Agreements—30 of the 160 targets in the 2000 Spending Review are shared between departments. The Spending Review took into implementation the proposal for a cross-cutting budget to the Policy Innovation Fund of £50 million for 2001-02 to support cross-cutting initiatives, and many of the specific proposals in Wiring it Up have been taken forward as part of the Civil Service reform process. There was reference earlier to the need for interchange between the Civil Service and the non-Civil Service world—that proposal has been taken forward.

  913. In a nutshell, whose responsibility is it for ensuring that those recommendations are implemented?
  (Mr Aldridge) The responsibility for implementing recommendations is shared between the Cabinet Office, Treasury and the Civil Service Management Board. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for the Cabinet Office are due to report jointly on progress early this year and that progress report, to which I think you are referring, is currently in hand.

  914. Could I try one last thing on you. It is partly picking up what Michael Trend was asking about. You have had experience of central government in Number Ten. You have now moved to this extremely important unit thinking strategically as a civil servant. Is it the case, as you see it and as you have experienced it, as is often said and said to us in evidence here, that the strategic centre of government in Britain is too weak and that is a weakness that has to be remedied? Some people suggest it should be remedied by an ostensible Prime Minister's Department. Some people think Michael's suggestions take you down that road, suggesting somehow Prime Ministerial tentacles were going out and making a Prime Minister's Department by other means. My question to you is does your analysis tell you there is a strategic weakness at the centre of British government and, if so, why do we not remedy it in a full frontal way rather than by assorted devices to get at the destination we want to arrive at?
  (Mr Mulgan) It is probably not for me to give a comprehensive answer to that. I think one of the reasons why bodies like the PIU have been set up is a recognition that there is a strategic problem at the centre of British government. Whether "weakness" is quite the right word or not I do not know. Implied in the question is whether it has powers and authorities or whether it does not have enough powers and authorities. To some extent the issue is one of capacities. It has long been recognised that the centre of British government, particularly Number Ten and the Cabinet Office, has in many respects lacked sufficient capacities to be strategic, to innovate, to do the policy work we do, to keep track of what is happening in reality on the ground in a whole range of service areas and a huge variety of things which the government does, and that it lacks particular capacities, for example, in ensuring that the ways in which technologies are organised are professional and more strategic. There is a variety of other areas that one might mention. A lot of what is happening at the moment is trying to remedy that lack of capacities within the centre. Whether that is best done by naming departments in a different way or drawing the boundary lines between Number Ten, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury a different way is a slightly less interesting question than the question of what they actually do and what skills they have and how those are organised together across the centre of government as a whole, as I said earlier. A personal comment on some of the earlier very interesting discussions in this Committee is that I thought they were not quite posing the question in the right way, fascinating as it is to speculate about different kinds of Prime Ministerial Department.

  Chairman: I think that is a note we should end on. I think with you telling us we are not posing the questions in quite the right way would be a appropriate place to end. It has been a very interesting session, a fascinating life episode. Thank you very much for coming along and talking to us and we wish you very well in your new post. Thank you very much indeed.

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