Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-131)



  120. I am sure you do not have so much confidentiality, the question is, how do you make sure that issues of that sort, good practice in terms of how you draw up policies, is copied between departments?
  (Mavis McDonald) The very key starting point for making sure that we do this is to pick up at the early stages of policy development that all the relevant parties are around the table as a policy is being formulated and the options and choices are being put to ministers for collective clearance.

  Chairman: We will have to leave it there then. Your last questioner, Mr Williams.

Mr Williams

  121. Thank you, Chairman. May I say I applaud entirely what you are trying to do and I hope that disillusionment does not set in too early. There is a cultural clash, is there not, between the policy-makers and the machine? The one has time and the other does not. Unfortunately, the ones who need the time do not have it and the ones who have the time do not have the decision making powers. Tony Crossland used to say that governments make their biggest mistakes in the first six months in office and spend the rest of their time in office trying to undo them. In a way that is what you are saying, is it not? I do not mean that against this government or any other, but in effect that is what you are saying, at least if you are getting it wrong, recognise you have got it wrong and put it right as quickly as you can.
  (Mavis McDonald) And have much better information systems in place to show you what is really happening as a result of what you are doing so you get the kind of very speedy feedback that Stephen Crowne was talking about so you can be more on top of what is going on. I like your analogy. My experience of changing governments, and I have worked for different kinds of governments, is that some policies are worked out with a wide range of stakeholders by an incoming government before they arrive and some of them are not. It is the speed with which you then move on those which have not which can be at risk, but that is where I think the responsibility is on us to make sure that a sufficiently wide range of interests, options, risks and possibilities for implementation are put on the table before ministers.

  122. One of the sadnesses, and I mean this very seriously, is if you have got a system working as you wanted it, to get the best benefit of it it also needs you to be educating the opposition as much as educating the government because opposition inevitably has to devise alternative policies and alternative approaches, it then makes strong commitments in its manifestos and then comes in and is determined it has to implement them, so the more informed the opposition is the better informed it is likely to be when it comes into government. In that respect we are starting experimenting on something that was used in the last century and which is used frequently in New Zealand and in Australia, which is pre-legislative hearings. Looked at from where you sit, looking at the machine, looking at the process, do you see that as possibly highly beneficial in that the MPs on both sides with this pre-legislative hearing, particularly on technical, complex, specialist issues, will have opportunities to take hearings from specialists who will guide them in the way the Standing Committee Stage of a Bill is dealt with?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think if that means that by the time a Bill actually comes to the House it is much better understood by all parties, including us as we are developing it, then you may get less of the kind of changes you see now in some big legislation where quite significant changes are made as the Bill goes through the House. If you take something like the Regulatory Impact Assessment Study that we looked at, I cannot remember how long ago, the total impact of what happens in the House may change the kind of package quite dramatically in terms of its end result and impact. I have no problem with that as a means of helping open up both the process and the understanding and thinking and hopefully leading to a better Act at the end of the day.

  123. How far are you having to convert the officials and how far do you have the officials sitting there saying "if only, and we have been saying this for years but unfortunately the politicians do not listen"?
  (Mavis McDonald) My view is that things change all the time as policy shifts and events change people's perspective of what is going on. I think that personalities are quite important in terms of the mix of people who are going to take the final judgments on what a policy is going to be. There are not any hard and fast rules about what is best practice at any one point in time, it is a process of continually trying to stay with the world as it is developing around you and fit within that framework.

  124. You are trying to introduce these disciplines into a system where you have more expertise inevitably in most cases with the Civil Service, with the people dealing with an issue long term in a particular division, or something of that sort, and you have the transient politician who comes in for three years into that department dealing with the details of social security and is off dealing with defence in the next three years, it does seem that there is this incompatibility between the systems, how are you going to persuade the politicians, rather than the civil servants—assuming my analysis is right, they are more on your side than we are—this is what we need to do?
  (Mavis McDonald) My view would be in two ways, and I will ask Ron Amann to comment as well. One is by demonstrating that the information you are giving them, the analysis you are giving them is sound and well-founded and based on real evidence. The second is being perfectly happy about the fact that your view is not the only view that they are taking. They can, as people do all over the place, take their own standing with other groups that they know and are interested in. We have had examples in certain departments of ministers working very successfully within formal sounding boards, drawing from a variety of different kinds of stakeholders, almost using them as a testing board for the ideas to come forward from departments. The quality of our analysis and material and evidence is quite critical in generating that trust and generating that trust quite quickly in politicians so that we are giving them value in the information choices and options we are laying out before them.

  125. Are you able to assess whether the disaggregation of government has had any effect at all, beneficial or otherwise? What I am talking about is when this Committee was first set up you had a few monolith departments, and now you have hundreds, thousands of units, bodies who have been monitored by the NAO. In your Report—it was quoted by one of my colleagues—you referred to the point saying, "involving those who have to implement in the process of design". Does the fragmentation of government, which has other advantages in managerial terms, make this feedback more difficult, in that a minister with a large number of quangos is he at a disadvantage as compared with a minister who has a large number of functions but is dealing with them in-house, or does it not make any difference?
  (Mavis McDonald) This is a totally personal view, I think it is probably slightly easier if you are dealing with services which you fund and orchestrate directly than if you were working through bodies that you are persuading that what you want to do is something that they think is appropriate. I think with quangos you can have quite close relationships if you are to establish those relationships as well. There are some quangos who have independence written into their statutory meaning, so they play a lobby role to government as well as an implementing role. It is more difficult with local government, obviously. Another arena we are entering into is much closer engagement with local groups closer to the ground, like community groups. The further away you are, the less immediacy between the choice of what you want to do. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that you actually get better implementation on the ground if those who are engaged are engaged early enough and buy into what you are trying to achieve.

  126. Following on the American pattern of developing more and more think-tanks, and some of the American think-tanks have established highly prestigious status, do you see this as an alternative route to the in-house development of expertise? It is difficult for departments to carry expertise on all issues, they have to take in consultants. Do you feel that it would be healthier for ministers if we had our think-tank infrastructure developed more fully along the American lines?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think (a) we have a wide variety of think-tanks that the Government can access anyway and (b), and Ron from his previous existence knows much more about this, we have quite close relationships with the relevant academic schools and liaison through the research councils which gives us access to a lot of alternative thinking of a very high academic quality.
  (Professor Amann) I would just say very briefly that there is a new landscape of policy related evidence emerging in Britain and actually throughout the developed world which includes new relationships with major research funding organisations that are targeting their research more closely on policy-making. The medical example of evidence based medicine, which is based on the Cochrane Centre, that brings together all the clinical trial evidence from throughout the world, is being extended into areas of economic and social research too. We have never actually been in a better position to use the richness of evidence outside Government. Just to get back to the previous point you were making of time being the enemy and how do we actually do this. My fundamental answer to that is you need a better system for managing knowledge within Government in order to give policy-makers and ministers a much more user friendly access.

  127. Way back in history, which very few people here will remember, my first ministerial job in the 1960s was in something called the Department of Economic Affairs and it was fascinating, it was like being in a university department within Whitehall. It sat on all the Cabinet committees but it did very little legislation, hardly appeared on the floor of the House of Commons, and its job was to second think the Treasury, which at that stage led to considerable stress between the Treasury and it, as you can imagine. It was a fascinating exercise for the first time as a minister to be sitting in these Cabinet meetings leading policy formation and being there to try to provide an impartial input into the disputes that were going on between departments. I am sorry, that has nothing to do with the question I am going to ask. I always felt perhaps one of the great tragedies in the development of objective government was when Harold Wilson chose to close the DEA down. I did not lose my job, I moved to another one, so it is not a grudge. It was a great lost opportunity when DEA was closed down rather than being subsumed into a Prime Minister's department that would provide the advice we were providing in the Cabinet committees directly perhaps to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Switching back to the things that are relevant to you, from our point of view you have referred constantly to best practice and this Committee obviously wants to encourage best practice. How can we best monitor whether best practice is being achieved within Government, particularly when there are constitutional rules that make it difficult for us to get information on official advice to ministers? How can we tell whether what you are trying to achieve is being achieved?
  (Mavis McDonald) I think if you look at individual departments' reports now where we build into them both our Public Service Agreements and our activities and what those activities cost then you have got a starting framework within those reports to make some assessment of the extent to which the departments look as if they are on target or not. I would expect the information which is put into those reports to get better and better as we get better at the process of articulating real world outcomes as performance indicators rather than either more aspirational outcomes or just process outcomes. I think there is the possibility there for you to be able to see much more clearly whether departments are on track and are doing what they say they are going to do with the resources that are there than there has been previously.

  128. I can see the process being particularly relevant that you have been referring to in the establishment of targets and the monitoring of targets. We have argued, and the NAO has argued, for the NAO to be the independent verifier of performance reports in achieving targets. I have forgotten where we are on that post the Sharman Report. What about the choice of targets? What seems to be coming over in relation to health, and I suspect a lot of internal issues, is we are spending an awful lot of our time chasing the wrong targets and not focussing on the correct targets. Do you think, Sir John, there would be any value if you had a role in not helping set the targets but in verifying that the targets were relevant targets? Could you see that as an attainable objective for us to argue for?
  (Sir John Bourn) Certainly there is the whole question, if you take the objectives, that is embodied in the public service agreements and then you can look at the targets that the government departments set for achieving those objectives and you can see whether there is some logical connection between the two. You sometimes cannot help but feel that if you look at the target and you see if you hit the target would you achieve the objective. You do sometimes see a mismatch between the objective and the target. Of course Lord Sharman did recommend a comprehensive responsibility on the National Audit Office to look at such matters, which would include that. Of course we have already, under the 1983 Act, done some work, as you will recall, on looking at particular departments and agencies and their systems of objectives, targets and achievement. As you rightly say, Mr Williams, we await the government's response to Lord Sharman's recommendations.

  129. Which suggests that since it was a recommendation made a little while ago it is not a recommendation that has been embraced with great enthusiasm. You make the point about shaping training in the Civil Service, the Civil Service is increasingly going on to shorter term contracts, the job for life concept of the Civil Service is no longer as valid as it was a couple of decades ago. Do you think that this will make the training process more difficult or even if it does not make the training process more difficult will it mean that the benefits will be more short-lived because people are not staying as long as they did?
  (Professor Amann) I do not think it is going to make any difference to the training unless that trend were to go very far indeed. What we need to be providing is much more training than we are giving at the present time. To give you an idea of that, in the last two years we have just about doubled the amount of training that we offered to members of the senior Civil Service.

  130. If we were making a recommendation on training would you care to give us guidance as to what recommendation would lead you to leave this room with a very wide smile on your face?
  (Professor Amann) I would like to continue along the same track as far as the number of people trained are concerned that my organisation is responsible for. If there is a gleam in my eye for the future towards what we are doing it would be to go down the road that other organisations have gone down somewhat further than we have, which is to provide training on people's desktops through much more systematic e-learning. That is the greater vision for the future.

  Mr Williams: Thank you very much. My time is up.


  131. Thank you, Mr Williams, it is always a great delight to share your long experience. Can I ask you one last question, it really arose from the question that Mr Steinberg put to you relating to paragraph 3.28 on page 26, I just want to ask you what you are doing to encourage departments to undertake evaluations, because I know it is a very key area? Are such evaluations happening? What steps are you taking to make them more practical? Can I just give you one example given to me today, flood defences—which is of interest to us in Lincolnshire, going back to the 1940s hundreds of people were killed because not enough emphasis was placed on flood defences—there was tremendous interest in government, as the years pass the interest dies away, it is less fashionable, bits of money are chipped away and suddenly we arrive in September 2000 and we do not have a flood policy which is effective against the crisis that hit us. This is one example, can you tell us a bit more, before we end, about how you are forcing other departments to conduct constant evaluations of policies?
  (Professor Amann) If I may take this one, Chairman. We are not approaching that from the point of view of compliance, but rather strong encouragement. First of all, I think the point needs to be made that there are major evaluations of policy going on across Government at this time in areas like New Deal for Communities, Sure Start, ONE, for example, which brings together employment and benefits. Basing ourselves on the NAO recommendations we need to go further than that. We have set up new training programmes and seminar programmes of policy evaluation specialists bringing together policy-makers and analytical staff, both to look at substantive issues but also to deal with the technical questions of policy evaluation too. They have been very, very popular. We have got a waiting list, in fact, of policy-makers and evaluation people who want to attend those events. The message has actually got through to them very strongly. Once again, as we mentioned before in the context of best practice, there is best practice in evaluation and we want to start building networks of specialists across Government in this area so that they can learn from each other. Formal training will only get you part of the way, it is really sharing examples, those real life examples that are the unique property of the Civil Service, that are so telling. In the future I hope that we will increasingly see, and we will be monitoring this through our networks, evaluation being built in as an integral part of policy development.
  (Mavis McDonald) Could I just add to tie it back to your flood example that we are continuing under the committee called ILGRA, which is about risks to the public, to work with departments and the Treasury on those particular risk plans and their contingency planning. That is an ongoing process and we will be doing another review of effectiveness next year. Certainly I know DEFRA have been working on flood defence policy taking account of what happened last year to look at the Environment Agency's risk plans.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Mrs McDonald. I know it has been a difficult session for you because it is such a wide area that you have had to cover, but thank you for coming and thank you to your colleagues as well. That concludes the public session, thank you very much.


previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 31 July 2002