Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 100-119)



Mr Liddell-Grainger

  100. I am fascinated because you fought your way and you got in. I am just looking at The Outsider v. the Club. I was wondering why you went in the end? Did you just get sick of the whole thing or did you think the money was not all that or you had got knighted and you should have gone?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Never my great motivator. A range of reasons, I suppose. One was I quite wanted to do something different. I could have gone and done a permanent secretary's job in another department but I had done that for five or six years and frankly I did not want to do the same job just somewhere else. That was an issue. I wanted to move to a completely different environment, which I have been able to do. I think it is a pretty well open secret that I was frustrated at the speed of change. I thought I was beginning to become a caricature of the person who was always moaning about things not moving faster and it seemed to me it was probably time, before that became too much of a caricature, for me to move on and someone else to carry the flag.

  101. That is the crux of the matter, that things were not moving fast enough. How do you see the interface between people like yourself being brought in and businessmen? I was reading The Outsider v. the club, the permanent secretaries' club, and only one of them had gone into the World Bank, Rachel Lomax, who had been a career civil servant before that. Do you think that more people should be brought in from outside to try and steer government down to the ethos of business which has targets, has always had targets, budgets, etc., and accepts them for what they are? Is there a way for that connection?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I get slightly worried about the language of just importing private sector business mechanisms into government. I think a lot of what the private sector does, a lot of the mechanisms, are really, really good and therefore what we ought to be doing is justifying them on the basis that they are good systems and good approaches, not that they were done in the private sector. Basically on the main point of your question I do believe, and I have said constantly, that we ought to be bringing into government more people from outside, not just from the private sector but from other parts of the public sector, from the voluntary sector too, that there should be a better flow both ways. I do not think we should not have civil servants who see themselves necessarily forever working in the Civil Service. I happened to have a look at the evidence I gave when I was last here and I think we talked then about the difference between stagnant puddles and fast flowing streams. I am quite keen on fast flowing streams and sometimes I have worried that our government system, Whitehall, is too much like a stagnant puddle.

  102. This government uses an enormous amount of management consultants, bringing them in all the time.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think all governments have done that.

  103. Fine, but I am just trying to figure out how much they have spent in the last couple of years on this. Do you think that they could be used to try and appraise targets? You had 152 and you said the ideal was about ten or thereabouts. Do you think that they should be appraised from an external source as opposed to an internal one?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think that can be very helpful actually. The extent to which consultants are effective they would say, and I would agree, is very much down to the way in which you specify their task and manage their performance. That is a skill in itself which maybe we have not always got right. In terms of this morning and the evidence, I should say there are many things that the Civil Service does that I am very appreciative of and there are some brilliant people there, so I do not want to give an entirely pessimistic picture.

  104. I do not think anybody would suggest that for one minute. What we are trying to tease out is the way the targeting system works in this country and some of the ramifications and problems of it.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think having external people, having an external look, is absolutely right, that is what you need if you are not going to miss some of the big things like accuracy and speed.

  105. One of the things you said which intrigued me in The Governance of the Public Sector, which you wrote, was "If the Treasury (and No 10) become too strong and too interventionist, the role of Ministers and their departments is devalued." If that is the case then how do you administer the target because you have got the overall body, the Cabinet Office or whatever, putting pressure on saying "this will be achieved and if it is not we will think about something else"? Do you see it being too interventionist or do you think that the executive is becoming too all controlling, I suppose is the word, and what problems will that bring?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think you need to be constantly asking that question, which is not a way of ducking the question at all. I am not sure that I believe it necessarily is too interventionist. I said last time I think one of the most difficult decisions in public administration is when do you devolve and when do you centralise. As a subset of that one of the most difficult questions is when do you intervene and when do you not. I think if you have got a good business plan with a small set of key targets and you are monitoring those rigorously then you are in a good position to know whether or not they are being delivered and when you should intervene. I am not against intervention. For heaven's sake, look at what we did with local education authorities where the department probably intervened more than at any other time in the history of education. One of the great strengths of introducing the literacy and numeracy targets and strategy was that we had information available at school and local authority level which enabled us to intervene where we thought that was necessary, whereas in the past what had happened was you had the targets, you had a vague sense that they were not being achieved but you did not know where to focus your attention to try and make sure that they were achieved. Where kids' education is concerned, where literacy and numeracy standards are concerned, I think they are important enough issues for central government to have the right to intervene if they feel that a local education authority or a school is just not delivering. You need reliable data.

  106. In your Ten Steps to Delivery, number six, you "Review the operation of Public Service Agreements. Every government department needs a decent business plan which provides them with purpose, direction and a focus on priorities. PSAs do not provide this."
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.

  107. Are you confirming from what you have just said that in fact the whole thing is not being controlled?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I was not involved in a lot of PSAs. My sense is, from what I hear, that it is an improved process. I have not done a review of the targets which form the Public Service Agreements. Really I do not think that I am qualified to comment on that. I was talking about the first two rounds where I think a lot of the targets were not measurable, they were not focused, they were not rigorously monitored and they did not come out with decent business plans.

  108. You keep very much involved still in what is going on. What is your best guestimate?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think that is an unfair question. I only have the knowledge now of a lay person and I think it is wrong for me to draw conclusions really.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Okay. Thank you very much.

  Chairman: I think you have been as helpful as you possibly can be on that. We have pressed you too far.

Kevin Brennan

  109. You have put your finger on some key issues here regarding targets in the opening statement you have made in the paper you have provided us with. Can I just explore that a little bit with you. You have set out 17 key points you think are required to design a good target. I was interested in what you said. You said the targets should be stretching the achievable. Would you accept the proposition that if all targets were achieved that they would not be stretching enough?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.

  110. If you accept that point, would you accept that it is inevitable that some targets are not met?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do. I do accept that, yes.

  111. Should you not add to your points that we should have a target for how many targets we should expect to meet?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It varies according to circumstances.

  112. In a given circumstance should there not be a target for how many of the targets you have said you expect to meet?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think that is an artificial target. When I was running the Employment Service what I would do was agree with the chief executive and he would with his staff a bonus which reflected his performance against targets. In that bonus I would say to him you will get so much if you get 80 per cent of the target.

  113. I am making a serious point because you have said in your statement that "Unrealistic targets do not raise performance—they simply demoralise staff".
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.

  114. You have accepted my proposition that it is inevitable you will fail to reach some of the targets. At the outset we have heard that is an inevitable outcome, therefore, that you will demoralise staff by setting targets which you do not expect them to be able to reach.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, I do not think that does demoralise staff. I would not have been demoralised if I had achieved 80/90 per cent of my targets actually, I would have been delighted. I do not think that does demoralise the staff.

  115. Would that be something you would communicate to your staff? You might not be demoralised but would you communicate to your staff at the outset "Listen we are setting all these targets, limited in number as you say, but we do not realistically expect you to be able to meet them all. If you reach 80 or 90 per cent of them as your manager I will not be demoralised and therefore you as a member of staff should not be demoralised by the fact that you feel you have reached them".
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think it is a question of how you go about managing your staff. The management and the leadership I would give to staff is "We have set these targets. We will do our darnedest to meet all of them. We will not give up on any of them".

  116. I do not expect you to meet them all.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, I would not say that at all because I would like to think we could meet them. My answer to your question is I would not expect them all to be met necessarily but the other side of the coin is if all of them are not met then the way in which management responds to that is really important. I would not go around beating people up because they have missed a couple of targets, maybe partly because of external factors or maybe partly because they just turn out.

  117. We know what will happen, do we not? You will not go around beating them but you have said in the final part in your points about targets that the media response to you not meeting them—because you have said that you have told the staff they have to meet all the targets—is they will say you have failed and the people who are charged with reaching those targets have failed.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, we cannot be driven entirely by the media response. We are in this business to provide the best possible service to the public. I am about trying to find systems which will deliver the best possible service to the public. If we do not have targets, which I have said at the outset have got risks attached to them and are not perfect, I can tell you what happens with a lot of staff and that is they run around like headless chickens trying to understand what the hell they are supposed to be doing and what are the priorities in this business, what do they want us to do. Let me tell you that is very demoralising and that is a lot more demoralising than not achieving a couple of targets when your management is reasonably understanding. I can lack understanding when people are not performing but I think if people have really pulled out all the stops and got as close as they can to performing then that is when one should be supporting and not blaming.

  118. I would agree with you entirely that people want to be given the ball and told in what direction to run with it and given the freedom to use it appropriately. Are you not setting them up to fail if you give them a series of targets which you as a manager secretly, because you do not share this with them, know they will not be able to reach and when they stumble and fail as a result of that you say "Well actually do not worry about it, we do not mind it".
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think there are different philosophies and different ways of motivating or not people. My philosophy and my way of motivating is always to be clear about what you are trying to achieve and do your darnedest to achieve it. Sometimes you will fall short both as an individual and as an organisation but I would rather do that than avoid clarity of direction and clarity of focus simply because of the danger that we might miss and we might fail. The public want us to improve the quality of service and get as close as we can to perfection, that is what we should be doing. We should not be driven totally by what the media think and we should not be driven totally by the fact that some staff may find all this a bit difficult. Our job is public service not staff reassurance.

  119. Can you give me an example from your experience of a bad target?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think the speed of payment one that I talked about earlier was a bad target because of the impact that it was having on accuracy and on so much else that was happening including customer service which was pretty damaging. That is a serious example.

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