Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 240-259)

SIR RICHARD WILSON GCB

THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2001

  240. Gus Macdonald has a small number of people in the Delivery Unit, multi-skilled obviously, but is there a resentment in the departments of what the Delivery Unit is trying to do and the way it is going about it? You will have seen the piece in the FT today about the Delivery Unit and it tells us that Michael Barber is drawing up a league table of Whitehall departments. It tells us here: "Even those whose departments top the table judge the exercise shallow and facile". That is a bit disappointing, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think one learns over time to concentrate on what one is doing rather than worry too much about comment and I think that is all I would say about that.

  241. Turning to something of more substance, I hope, there has been criticism that departments have been unable to spend all the cash that is being made available to them by Gordon Brown, the Government. What is the problem? We are talking about billions of pounds that is not being spent.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think there has been a problem, and it is one which we are addressing, because clearly there is a major scaling up required in order to get the investment in place and the programmes moving through a pretty steep curve over a relatively short period of time. I think the problems are the ones that I was describing earlier, that we are responsible to Parliament for ensuring that we get good value for money, and I do not think you can just turn on the tap on money overnight without a very large management effort and a very large programme of work and projects, and that is really what a lot of this delivery is about.

  242. £6.8 billion is a lot of money. You are confident that the new configuration we have been talking about and the Delivery Unit working with the departments will in future mean that this volume of resources is actually spent?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Delivery Unit is, I believe, a very big new effort of the kind we have not attempted before to make that kind of investment programme happen and work and be successful.

Chairman

  243. When the Deputy Prime Minister came to see us a fortnight ago he said—and he has a way of telling it like it is: "The reality is we know that departments do not deliver." Is that not a fairly extraordinary and damning thing for a Deputy Prime Minister to say of his machine?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think the Deputy Prime Minister was telling it as he perceived it. I think there is a sense in which we are being challenged to move from a world where people thought they were dealing with policy to one where actually policy is nothing unless it is about making sure something happens in the real world outside. I do accept that what we are being asked to do now is different in kind from the things we have been asked to do in the past. If you look at the last 20 years, the drive for reform of the Civil Service has focussed first on improving our financial management, then on the efficiency with which we used resources, then on cutting out fat and contracting out, privatisation, market testing, and that has been what we were asked to do over a long period of time with, at the end, an increasing focus in the Citizen's Charter on the service that we provided to the public. I think the challenge now is whether the Civil Service and public services more generally—I keep talking about the Civil Service, I think some of what I am talking about is public services—can actually be of a high quality, which is a new kind of challenge and does require a very considerable response from the top of the Service. That is what the shaping of the Cabinet Office is about.

  244. That is a quite extraordinary thing to say. Is that not a way of saying that until now we did not realise that public services could be of high quality and, therefore, we did not need to do much about them?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I stand by what I have said which is, of course, we have always wanted to deliver good services. I think if you ask the front line staff they have often felt huge commitment to the public who they serve and it has been a great motivating force, but the public are changing. I keep saying this in speeches. I think the public who used to regard public services as the gift of a benign state and were prepared to put up with shabby waiting rooms, long waiting times and, poor service, are no longer prepared to accept that. They are putting great pressure on Government—you know about this from your own constituencies—and the Government in turn are putting great pressure on us to bring about a radical improvement in the quality of public services. I think I am saying we have not been asked to do that in a relatively short period of time before. What I am saying to my colleagues is that it is big change and it requires different skills at the top. We have not got all the skills that we need, we are having to bring them in from outside, we are having to train people up, we are having to recognise important skills which in the past we tended to think were unimportant or things that you could, as it were, regard as being appropriate to junior people. We have to bring them in to the teams at the top, we have to change the ways that we are working, we have to accept the kind of challenge that the Delivery Unit is posing. It is not going to do it all itself, it has got to do it through departments. The Prime Minister himself is asking us to accept this as a big challenge and that is what the new shape of the Cabinet Office is mobilised to try to do. It is not doing it for the Prime Minister in a kind of presidential role, we are doing it for Ministers collectively.

  245. We are looking at the public service ethos at the moment and Michael Trend wants to ask you something about that in a moment. It is a striking fact if you are telling us that this public service ethos that we all want to celebrate did not involve somehow a commitment to delivering high quality public services. That is really a rather alarming thing, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think commitment to serving the public has always been one of the mainsprings of public service in the Civil Service but it has always been within the resources that were available. Quite often that meant you had to deliver a service that was not the ideal service or the one that you would like to provide. I think we are now in a position where the resources are being provided and we are saying now that we have got a relatively short period of time in which we are being asked to deliver high quality public services and, indeed, that is what the challenge is.

Mr Trend

  246. I am going to disappoint you. We were grateful for your organisation chart and I know you think it is simpler and clearer, which in itself sent an alarm signal to me. I much preferred the one you produced in the last Parliament which was complicated and I thought bore a closer relation to real life. On this new one there are some politicians floating up here and everything else is firmly rooted to you, and I approve of that of course. In the old one we had lots of other figures which have been left out mysteriously in this new one. Chiefly in No.10 Downing St it does not mention any of the 26 special advisers who now work for the Prime Minister. Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell were on the old list. We had a better idea from the old list of how things actually worked rather than how things are supposed to be understood. Of course, when we get to the memoirs in five or ten years' time we will be able to see how it actually worked. Our anxiety in the last Parliament, and probably this one as well, was that there was a period of hybridity going on in Parliament, people coming in from the business world, people coming in from the political world, and this has not been recognised at all in your organisation chart.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) First as to everyone being firmly rooted to me, that simply is a description of the officials and it is quite proper that they all come under me as Head of the Cabinet Office. I do not think that is a problem. Secondly, this is only an organisation chart for the Cabinet Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it does not include No.10 and that is why you do not find people from No.10 in it.

  247. I knew you would say that. Unfortunately, the last one you gave us did include No.10 and I wonder if we could ask if we could have a wider organisation chart which would include the people we had in the last chart as well. In a sense we are asking a very easy question. What we want to do is understand how Government in 2001 works. As I say, one day we will be able to find out but perhaps at the moment it could be a little clearer to us even if it means the chart is a little more complicated. Could you have another go at this?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If you are asking, sir, for an organisation chart of No.10 I am sure we can provide it. All I would say to you is that No.10 is not part of the Cabinet Office and that is why it is not here.

  248. But from what the Deputy Prime Minister was saying last week, and in the briefing we have got, it does appear that one of the big differences from earlier times is that in earlier times there would be special advisers or equivalent people in the Policy Unit in Downing Street and broadly speaking they were free of these people but now there are an awful lot of units working out of your building that are sometimes headed up, sometimes not headed up, by people who work in Downing Street. The idea that somehow the door between the two buildings has become a motorway is surely one that we are allowed to entertain.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Permission to disagree. I think it has always been the case that the Cabinet Office has housed units which are of importance to the Prime Minister of the day. Let me give you some examples. The Central Policy Review Staff, which Mr Heath set up as his think-tank, that was part of the Cabinet Office. The Efficiency Unit under Mrs Thatcher, which was headed by Lord Raynor and Peter Levene and other people over the years, that was located in the Cabinet Office, even though they were the Prime Minister's Efficiency Adviser. I think I could weary you with the list of units over the years which have been located in the Cabinet Office where the person at the top was the Prime Minister's adviser on better regulation, efficiency, policy and so on.

  249. But most of those people would have come from private industry or from banks or academic institutions. The difference now is an awful lot of these people come from a political network.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If you think about it, I may get this wrong, my recollection is that members of the CPRS were recruited and appointed by Victor Rothschild and basically would probably have been people without any selection process, people who now would have to fit into that special adviser mould. I am not sure.

  250. I agree with you, I think that is the grandfather of all these institutions. Certainly under the last Conservative Government it had become formalised as the Policy Unit which was in Downing Street. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we think there is a confusion about whether Cabinet Government is alive and well because the centre is so much larger and, according to the old map, so much more complicated.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Can I draw your attention to something which again may be relevant. You focused just now on the 26 special advisers in Number 10. There has, in fact, been a greater growth in the number of permanent civil servants in Number 10 than the number of special advisers. I think the number is—

  251.—Up to 5,000.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) We now have 40 people at Band A (which used to be the old Principal level) and upwards in the senior Civil Service, permanent civil servants, which is a great deal more than there were some few years ago. So it is again wrong to imply that we are in some sense being swamped. The permanent Civil Service is still playing a key role.

  252. Could I ask about something that has popped up on the new chart. Charles Clarke, Minister without Portfolio; is he paid as a Government Minister out of public funds?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) No sir.

  253. He is not, so the old arrangements still exist?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) We have applied in the case of Charles Clarke exactly the same arrangements as were applied to Conservative members of the Cabinet who were Chairmen of the Party. That is to say, he is paid by the Labour Party and he gets support from the taxpayer only to the extent that he is a member of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committees and he needs help in reading papers. We followed exactly to the letter arrangements that were in place previously.

  254. Thank you. Can I return to my broader point which is that there are many more political animals involved in this structure. The structure that we thought we could understand something about in the last Parliament is, broadly speaking, still there. There are still at the top real hybrid civil servant/political special advisers and then there is a new network of people. Let's ask you about the public service ethos, if you could give us some characterisation of that, and could you say how having more political animals in this heart of government affects them? Do they share the same public service ethos as your admirable civil servants?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Should I first begin by describing the ethos? The ethos of public service, and the Civil Service in particular, I would characterise first by a commitment to maintaining a high level of integrity. That is not just about integrity in the narrow sense of not stealing the money, I think it is about preserving at the core of the State a group of people whom the public feel they can trust. I do not want to go on about the Jo Moore episode any more because I think she has been punished horribly by the degree of vilification from all quarters, but the thing about that episode which dismays me is the sense that it weakens the trust of the public in what goes on inside government. I think the public cannot know us all but they are entitled to feel that the people there in public service are people who they can trust to have a set of values which they can identify with and regard as proper. That is a key feature of the ethos which I think is important. Secondly, I think commitment to public service is a very important part of the ethos. We have done research into what attracts people into the Civil Service. They do not come in because they want to make money, they do not come in because the want to build monuments to their own egos; they come in because they think they can make a contribution and they think they can identify with our values. That is a very powerful lever. Our recruitment now is tremendously strong. I meet all the people who come in through the fast stream, I give parties for them, and I am very struck by the degree of high motivation that comes in and I think that characterises us. Thirdly, there is a very strong commitment to fairness and equity and to treating people fairly on an equal basis. I think I would also put on the list continuity, that is, preserving institutions in the long term. I would also like to feel myself that part of the ethos was willingness to accept change, recognising that we are not a vested interest preserving ourselves, but we are there ultimately to provide service to the government of the day, and we are not any use to anybody unless we are providing an effective service. A willingness to change and accept radical reform while at the same time preserving our core values is what I would like to have built into the ethos.

  255. For a career civil servant, who might have foregone a fortune in the City, and for a political appointee, the ethos must be very different. One of the things the public was very surprised about in the Jo Moore case was the fact she was paid a very considerable amount of money. I think they are prepared to see civil servants well compensated in the way that civil servants at the top of the tree are by public esteem and recognition, but there is a feeling that one individual anyway may have been abusing the system at a high cost and where else does this exist in the system.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If I could volunteer a comment on special advisers, one of the things that strikes me is that, quite often, they do not come across to me as very political.

  256. That is doom for them!
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Indeed two of them have crossed into the Civil Service—Geoff Mulgan and Michael Barber—and I would offer you the thought that they are very good civil servants. What I would like to see, so much as one possibly can, is people who serve the public recruited on the basis of merit regardless of background. One of the things which I and my staff do now, when we know that Ministers are wanting to appoint people, is say to them, "Let's do it through the proper process of the Civil Service Commission." In quite a number of cases where Ministers have accepted that advice they have got excellent people and that is a good way of doing it. I think the role of special advisers is a valuable one. They perform an important service both for Ministers and Government. When you need particular forms of expertise or professionalism, I think much the best way of approaching the task is to get them in on the basis of merit through the proper procedures of the Civil Service Commission, who are very alert to the need to be ready to help.

  257. Do you understand why a Parliamentary Opposition might regard it as much more difficult than in the past to move into government with a network of the sort which I thought was properly described? How will transition of power, any transition of power, affect it?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I said one of the things that is important for the Civil Service is continuity. The ability to serve the government of any day is integral and essential to that. In terms of departments, there is a limit of two special advisers per department. That is the same limit as applied in departments under a Conservative Government. I do not see why that should remotely be a problem. We were able to manage, if I may give you a practical example from the Home Office, to move from a Conservative Home Secretary with two special advisers to a Labour Home Secretary with two special advisers. I do not see why there should be a problem. The one area where there is a difference is in Number 10 where there are 26 special advisers. I am absolutely confident that if there were to be a Prime Minister of a different political party voted in at some future election, the Civil Service would be able smoothly to move into place a private office which is staffed by permanent civil servants and, a press office staffed by civil servants. After all, the Prime Minister's own official spokesmen now are two permanent civil servants, and all the people you need are available. I would be sad if the trust in the permanent Civil Service had been damaged by anything that is happening at the moment. I do not see any reason why it should be.

  258. I am sure what you say is true but I do not think the two permanent civil servants who come from a political background would be entirely confident of retaining their posts after the election of a new Prime Minister.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I would argue very strongly to you, or whoever was the responsible Minister, that these are people who have gone through the proper processes of the Civil Service Commission. We made sure that each of the selection panels was chaired by a Civil Service Commissioner and in each case I asked them directly whether they were satisfied that these people would be able to serve a government of a different political complexion, and they have given me reassurance on that point. I can think of people in the past who have come in from different political backgrounds who Prime Ministers have trusted. I do not think it is difficult. Bernard Ingham, when I first knew him came in through what I would regard as very much Labour Party channels without so far as I could see—if you read his biography this is a matter of public record—any particular selection process, but Mrs Thatcher did not feel that an obstacle to employing him and she, I think, was very satisfied with his service. That is the way it is proper for an incoming Government to behave, to trust the Civil Service. If we judge the people are able to serve them I hope you would give them the benefit of the doubt and try them out.

Chairman

  259. Does this mean Bernard Ingham could have gone back in your judgment effortlessly to work for a Labour Government?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am not going to comment.


 
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