Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1080 - 1094)



Mr Lepper

  1080. Do we need a Prime Minister's Department?
  (Sir Christopher Foster) I am not going to be drawn on that, I do not know. I think, how you actually set it up structurally is a matter of art over which people have lots of opinions. It is more important, in my judgement, we should develop something of the kind than precisely where it is located and who does it; it does not have to be the Prime Minister, it may be some other senior minister who has the overall supervisory role.

  1081. Can Robin be drawn, or not?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I think not.


  1082. But what you would be drawn on, you just said something about this now, but is it not ironic that we have set up a Performance Unit in the Cabinet Office but the one thing that it does not do is any kind of performance measurement?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) No, it was not established to do that, it was established to explore innovative approaches to policy. Chris is absolutely right, that you need somebody in the centre, or some bodies in the centre, which systematically monitor performance of departments, of agencies, and everybody else, against a predetermined set of priorities. I would actually much prefer to see a more systematic approach than we have got at the moment, here. You are probably familiar with the New Zealand Strategic Result Areas. I am not a great advocate of much of the New Zealand model, so-called, but that particular one seems to me a very sensible, systematic approach to setting out the priorities of government, in a way that assigns activities to individual departments that contribute to those strategic priorities. And, if you can tie realistic targets progressively to that and to budget, that is fine; all I am saying is, I do not think the PSAs themselves have taken us quite so far forward as some people think.

Mr White

  1083. Would that be regional government and the local government and all the other sort of Next Steps agencies, as well as the Whitehall departments?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I think they all, or at least, all the central government agencies, should fit into that framework; how far you can bring local government in, I think, is a broader question. I think individual local authorities should work in this way.

  1084. And the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) Yes. I think there are modern priority-setting techniques which are available both to the Scottish and Welsh administrations and to central government here, and, indeed, to individual local authorities. I am not sure you could actually work out one that encompasses everybody.
  (Sir Christopher Foster) There is also a problem because of the large numbers: is it 160 PSAs? The centre is overloaded, always has been, one way or another. Therefore one has got to be careful, if one does have a new central apparatus, that one does not overload it further. One starts by giving it the most important additional tasks and then perhaps adds to them as it becomes more experienced in doing what it has been set up to do.


  1085. But we are assuming, are we not, that this apparatus is to be in the Cabinet Office?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) Not necessarily.

  1086. Where would it be?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) There needs to be sensible collaboration between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury on these things. I do not think that it is right for the whole responsibility for monitoring the progress of departments to be in the Treasury, because I think that tends to subordinate the substance of policies to the pound notes, and it puts the wrong emphasis for it to be wholly in the Treasury; but, clearly, the Treasury has to have a major part in it. So some sort of collaborative structure between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office needs to take place, as it does in New Zealand, for example, where there is, in their case, a triumvirate which monitors the budget and expenditure, the strategic priorities and policies and the most senior appointments, and those three are seen as closely linked, and they are monitored collectively.

  1087. But is not the problem at the moment that if we had such a collaborative arrangement it would be the Treasury by another name?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I am not sure that is necessarily true. Relations between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office have always been a bit fluid, and they have changed from time to time, not least to accommodate the personalities involved.

  1088. Michael Heseltine told us it was a bran-tub, the worst department he had ever served in?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I noticed that remark.

Mr Turner

  1089. Can I just have a couple of really wrapping-up questions, if I may, firstly to continue this one about the PSAs, because I think it is quite interesting. I see that one of the problems that we have is that there is not a sufficiently developed idea within the public and the media and the politicians about deciding where blame lies when things have gone wrong, so you will get the silly situation with the Passport Office fiasco, the problem there was with the computer, which was blamed on Jack Straw, who clearly had no idea about the contract that was let, and was not even party to it. Do you think that we need to look at a way of separating out somehow the political decisions, which is to decide we need a new computer for the Passport Office, allocating the money for it, clearly the ministerial job, and then the actual implementation of the decision, so that if there is a mistake anywhere then the proper accountability for that mistake can be put in place? I say that because I think if we can make that distinction, then we may get a little bit down the road of avoiding some of the risk aversion.
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I think this is a very difficult area, and personally I would be loathe to move down a route which diminished the significance of ministerial accountability, by which I do not mean the acceptance of blame by ministers. I think there is a very important distinction, for which Robin Butler was quite wrongly taken to task, a distinction between accountability and answerability. Accountability means the obligation to give an account of what happened and what is going to be done to make sure it does not happen again; answerability is the link to the concept of culpability. Now my view is that the correct relationship, at least, the classical relationship, is that if something has gone wrong in the Passport Office, or wherever, that is for the minister to take managerial action, through his permanent secretary, to make sure that the correct steps are taken to attribute blame and to deal with it. That is not a matter that ought to enter directly the parliamentary chain, and I think if you do enter the parliamentary chain then what happens is that officials will begin to assume an authority to act on their own, answerable to Parliament, which will diminish the effectiveness and authority of ministers. Now it may be that there are cases where one has to do that, but I think it needs to be done very carefully and with proper forethought. There is, of course, a clear exception, in the case of the accounting officer responsibility to the PAC, but that is pretty well rooted in practice and convention and people know what the significance of it is. But I think it is a very dangerous course, if you give individual officials a degree of public accountability, by which I mean accountability in the media and Parliament, that is going to detract from the responsibility of ministers to Parliament.
  (Sir Christopher Foster) May I comment. In my paper on accountability, which you have, I make very strongly the point that you should not blame ministers for what they cannot reasonably be held responsible. It is not fair; being accountable, that is being required to give an account, is another thing. In the Smith Report we go into this issue in some detail, saying, well, look, there are some very genuine problems here. Large IT systems are an extremely good example. You need a much more systematic process—perhaps it has since been adopted—by which ministers make their decisions at various stages in the design of these systems, as predetermined parts of the procurement process. You do everything on earth to prevent a situation in which you design a system many years before it is actually going to be completed. Ministers, I think, do have to understand two points which I think are absolutely crucial. One is, they must not complicate systems too much. As I understand it, one of the problems with the Passport Office system was that, in a sense, those approving passport applications had to involve themselves in an awful lot of non-quantitative information, requiring a great deal of discretion in its implementation, there were too many questions, really, for the system to comprehend. Now if that were to be the case, I am not saying it was, somehow you need to simplify system requirements if you can, to make absolutely sure you are dealing with the utterly and totally essential. The second point is that ministers must not change their minds on what they want, on occasions, they have got to accept the second-best. And to add a third point, having said there are only two, but the third, I think, is that you do want a system which is as flexible and adaptable as possible, and that, again, means usually one which is reasonably simple. I think we have learned a great deal about how to manage IT projects, but if ministers are constantly changing their minds, if they want incredibly complicated processes, they will get dud projects. This holds for not merely IT projects but buildings and other complex procurement. Compromises are needed, to get something which works and is sensible.

  1090. Is that exacerbated by the fact that ministers tend to be changed, and therefore the departmental direction will change with it?
  (Sir Christopher Foster) Yes; it must be, it has to be.
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I was a civil servant for 38 years and I worked for 29 Cabinet Ministers in that time.

  1091. Can I take up just one other point, on a different area. I got the impression, when you were talking about transferring people from the civil service into agencies and private sector, and vice versa, that you were really looking at the fairly senior management levels. Can you just give us some indication of how far down the line of management, or even administration, that you would go on these kinds of things?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) The current view, which I think is right, is that this should extend much more widely than in the past, and should go down to the old higher executive officer level, in other words, to relatively junior line management; now, clearly, not in all cases. But, for example, if you have got a civil servant managing a local office for the DSS, or something of that kind, to have experience in a local government operation of a similar kind would be hugely valuable, and vice versa. And I think there is every reason to encourage that sort of balanced movement in much larger numbers than we have done in the past, and I think there are steps being taken with the Local Government Association, and so on, to develop that.
  (Sir Christopher Foster) I agree with that, absolutely.

  1092. Just one other point, to Sir Christopher. I take it, from what you were saying about the need to have a large cadre of permanent civil servants, that you would not wish the Nicholas Ridley line for local government to be applied to the Civil Service, that you need just one or two meetings a year to award contracts? You would not wish that to be applied?
  (Sir Christopher Foster) Oh, no. I am not making any judgement on what should be the extent of contracting out; privatisation, in that context, is a form of outsourcing, which imposes its burdens on the people in the centre whose job it is to award contracts and then regulate them. If it matters to ministers, how a public service is run, in some considerable detail, then probably you have got to keep it as part of the public service. I have written on this, too, actually, and it is quite a complicated argument. You could, theoretically, privatise a great many more parts of government. However, I think the alternative of having mercenary armies for example would strike most people as damn silly, if only because you do not want any army to be in the position where it could threaten the state; but that is an extreme example. But the health service is something of which, as a nation, we are tremendously proud and want to find a way of running it, rather than it disappear into the private sector. There are other public services about which we feel much the same.


  1093. Can I just ask—I am afraid we have got to bring our conversation to an end, for a variety of reasons—amongst all these interesting ideas that we have been sharing, I say to both of you, if you had to run with one of them, if the objective is to make government work better, and I know that Sir Robin rightly tells us that we have been worrying about this for goodness knows how many years, but on the basis of your own vast experiences, what is the one thing each that you would really nominate? Is it something to do with Civil Service pay, is it to do with interchange; can you just tell us, amongst all the trees, what is the real runner for each of you?
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) I am afraid, rather unhelpfully, I do not think there is a single one, I think the nature of the beast is that you have got to tackle it at a number of different points, I think we have touched on some of them, I think there may be others. But I really do think that we, like other countries trying to tackle the modernisation of public services, have got to approach the thing on a number of different fronts at the same time. I think myself the joined-up government thing is very important, but I think the maintenance and the development of a more professional Civil Service, encompassing all the ideas that that involves, is another one. And I think myself that the maintenance of a politically neutral Civil Service is a very important feature, and if we were to change that, at any time, for any reason, it should not happen by default, it should happen as the result of a deliberate public debate about the proper extent to which senior positions should be politicised.
  (Sir Christopher Foster) I would agree with Robin, of course I would, and I would add other things we have discussed, like competitive pay scales and issues of that kind, which I think are, alas, terribly important; but let me play the game and respond to your question, while knowing that no one reform can be all-important. If I was asked the single reform which I would regard as most capable and necessary of development, it is the PSA and the whole processes that go with it, both in terms of how parliamentary accountability is exercised in relation to it. My paper certainly argues just why, at the moment, it is very difficult for Parliament to exercise accountability well. Many people have said they agree with me. To do better we need to move from what I would call a negative, forensic approach to accountability, of blaming people and catching them out, to a positive, PSA-based, audited one, where the NAO advises on what has gone well and what has not. And I would argue the modernisation of accountability line from Parliament, right the way down into the smallest agency, is the single thing which, in my judgement, will be of the greatest value in the better running of this country.

  1094. Thank you very much for that. I think we have had an extraordinarily interesting session. I am sorry we cannot continue it longer. We shall read what you have written, as well as, here, what you have said. Thank you very much indeed for coming along and helping us. Thank you.
  (Sir Robin Mountfield) Thank you, Chairman.
  (Sir Christopher Foster) Thank you for a very interesting set of questions; interesting and searching.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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