Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  300. Let us try and run at this from a different direction. You are the Prime Minister's girls and boys, are you not, sort of the heavy mob who lean on departments? Departments know you are there, the Prime Minister's eyes and ears tracking deliver across Government. They know that you are watching them all the time and are reporting back in on what is going on. Is that, I wonder, a kind of system that in the long term is going to produce increased, as we say, capacity and performance in organisations or is it really an alternative to it? What I mean by that, when I look at Wendy Thomson with her unit, as far as I understand these things, and reading about it when we have spoken before, it seems to me you are a capacity building bit of the system. You are really trying to build all these organisations up so they just become better organisations and so that all that is going on. I wonder if that is not more difficult to the extent to which you have got this rather tight "thou shalt deliver" mechanism going on at the same time, very, very highly centralised and with progress chasers? Are these two things in some kind of contradiction?
  (Dr Thomson) First of all, apologies for the quality of my speaking voice today. I will do the best I can to talk, but I have a cold. I think the two actually go very well together. I think anyway if you look at the research on high performing organisations it would show you need to focus on delivery and create clear expectations of what is required, at the same time as you are continually developing that organisation's capacity, not just to deliver what you need now but what you need in the future. Both those things are central to successful organisations. I think that is why the two units work together in the way they do.

  301. To press you on this, that is a kind of answer but surely, you are the expert, I put it to you tentatively, surely organisations which are successful are ones which have developed a certain kind of culture which has built into it things like very confident professionalism and all those sorts of things. I am just suggesting that maybe that strategy, which I would think is the durable strategy for turning things round and improving performance, is harder to have sitting alongside this tight, micro management with these imposed targets from the centre with then people chasing how well you are performing these targets. On the one hand, how can you develop the kind of culture that you need in an organisation when you are just jumping to these tunes being played for somebody else?
  (Dr Thomson) I do not think I would characterise the arrangements we have in place for monitoring performance in the way that you just have. What is a pretty normal part of most organisations is a capacity to know how they are doing and that is very much what the Delivery Unit is doing. I think most people in any organisation, certainly in my local authority, would be terrified at the prospect of running an organisation where they did not know how they were doing. Highly motivated, well functioning organisations welcome that clarity of expectation and purpose. My experience of inspecting organisations, which as you know I did for some years, the very successful organisations, if we were providing a useful and challenging inspection service, good organisations welcomed that as a catalyst for the changes they wanted to make. It did not become something which was oppressive, it was actually something which created the stimulus and challenge and really provided a mirror for how their performance was doing. It gives a focus on what you need to improve inside.

  302. You do not think honestly there is any respect in which Government by central targets makes certain kinds of organisational development more difficult?
  (Dr Thomson) I think it is a question of balance and excesses. I do not think you could really characterise the Government's spending overall at the level and complexity of the services here, having 160 targets, as being an excessive number of targets. I think for the nation's overall output from its public expenditure that is a fairly modest expectation. In balance, and in that kind of balance, I do not think it is oppressive. We are in touch with people managing public services and there is sometimes a feeling that there can be an excess of targets but I do not think that it is often a symptom not just of central targets but a symptom of inefficient processes that run right the way through the system. As we get better at arranging the performance system, people are getting much clearer about the outcomes and clearing away a lot of the debris that has been characteristic in the past.
  (Professor Barber) I just want to pick up and challenge your word "micro management". I think there was a genuine fear in departments, and understandably so, when the Delivery Unit was set up that in some way we would seek to micro manage. They do not think that now. One reason we do not do it is we do not have the skills or the capacity. There are 23 people working in the Delivery Unit, there are about 26 people at normal capacity, we just cannot micro manage, we do not want to micro manage. What we want to do is exactly what Wendy described. The other point I want to make, going back to your question, is one of the reasons we help departments, and why they find our work making a real contribution to their delivery, is we put the facts, the data, but also the other facts in front of the people who are making the decisions, the Prime Minister and Ministers. So we are improving the quality of decisions about delivery by making sure that the facts, however brutal, are taken into account. You know, it is true, I think you opened this question by saying "you are the Prime Minister's boys and girls" and we are out there checking up on people. The truth is that Prime Ministers through the ages have had people reporting back to them on the performance of bits of government. What is different about the Delivery Unit is we are saying the same thing to departments as we are saying to the Prime Minister. We are getting a clarity about how well a given part of government is delivering or delivery against a government target is going. There is a kind of straight forwardness about that relationship which is a big improvement I think on what went before.

  303. Which departments are doing better than others on the delivery front?
  (Professor Barber) It is better to judge them on different priorities. There has been in my view a very significant improvement in delivery in health over the last year coming through quite clearly in some of the data. There has been very significant strengthening of the capacity of the Home Office to deliver on key targets. The Education Department has a good track record from the previous Parliament and is very good at planning. It has some enormous challenges in relation to secondary education but it is making good progress. The new team at the Department of Transport in the few weeks it has had has made a very good start.

  304. Why do we not publish departmental performance tables? We publish them, seemingly now, for almost every other public body, why do we not have league tables of departments? Why do we not name and shame Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, would this be a good idea?
  (Professor Barber) One of the interesting things about government is the data on all the key things is public so the data is out there already. It is all absolutely available.

  305. When people in local government, and a lot of other public bodies, use that argument "Oh, well the data is out there now", it does not stop the Government saying "We are going to put it into a league table" so why do we not just do it for departments?
  (Professor Barber) A league table of precisely what?

  306. Their delivery success on a range of key indicators, this data that you are chasing all the time?
  (Professor Barber) Departments publish annual reports which set out the progress they have made on their key priorities.

  307. You have got the raw data already; you are half way there, are you not? Is this a project you might take on?
  (Professor Barber) No, I do not think it will be, but I will certainly consider it!

  Chairman: Thank you. Ian?

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  308. Demos said that the Prime Minister should think twice about bringing in any more experts to revise policy strategy. How is Lord Birt getting on?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think the report you are quoting was written by a rather good external expert who came to work at the PIU. He was a member of our team working on energy policy.

  309. Is it true?
  (Mr Mulgan) He would agree that there is great value for any government in using people from outside government who have experience, who bring insights to bear which perhaps we do not have sufficiently inside. In Lord Birt's case he has a very strong track record in the private sector and the public sector, he has a lot of insights to bring. He works part time, completely unpaid, and has provided a great deal of useful value to government as, indeed, have quite a few other individuals. Their numbers are minuscule by comparison with the permanent Civil Service, indeed by comparison with the numbers of Ministers. I think it would be quite hard to make the case that there were too many of them in government at the moment. My own view is that we have probably got the number about right. Their role is purely advisory. It is worth emphasising that none of them make decisions; Ministers make decisions and Ministers have to decide ultimately whether they are providing a useful service or not.

  310. Does Lord Birt work for you or do you work for him?
  (Mr Mulgan) He is an adviser. He works for the Prime Minister.

  311. To whom?
  (Mr Mulgan) He is a strategy adviser to the Prime Minister. He works on a part-time basis on individual projects. The Strategy Unit, for which I am responsible, provides support for those projects. We work very closely together. We work very well together and we generally, as it happens, see eye to eye on almost everything so I am rather an advocate of the use both of him individually and of other people like him in government. I think it adds to the quality of the work we do, it brings new insights and new experience to bear. We should be in no way apologetic about it. Previous governments, of course, have used experts of all kinds as well. What we have got a bit better at now is providing a supporting structure to get the best out of those people. One of my jobs is to put together mixed teams of civil servants and secondees from outside government to work with advisers like John Birt.

  312. Are you getting best out of Lord Birt?
  (Mr Mulgan) I think the Government is getting very good value.

  313. I am rather surprised you are not the paying him. What about people like Adair Turner, Penny Hughes, Arnab Banerji and Nick Lovegrove; are they all doing individual jobs within your unit?
  (Mr Mulgan) These are a group of people who have offered their services, again unpaid, to be used on a case-by-case basis on particular projects at particular times as advisers. As I said, if you look at their track records, they bring a great deal of varied experience to bear and they bring a set of skills which we do not have in abundance within the Civil Service.

  314. Wait a minute, are you saying that the Civil Service is no good, that you want more skills? I thought we had civil servants because they had lots of skills and they need replacing at 1,400 a year, so why are we needing more people? To whom are they responsible if they are not being paid?
  (Mr Mulgan) The approach we take in the Strategy Unit, and before that we took in the PIU, and indeed other units like the Social Exclusion Unit, is to work on a 50/50 basis on projects, so about half the staff we use are seconded from departments, particularly the departments which have responsibility in the area being considered, and about half are seconded in from outside government, from academia, business, voluntary organisations, sometimes from outside the UK. If in addition to those people who bring complementary skills, we can get individuals free of charge, at no charge to the taxpayer, that surely has to be a good thing for the Government?

  315. I just wonder because to whom are they accountable? We have had people in front of us who are not paid and we have asked the question, "If you are not paid, what is your loyalty?" If you are going to come and do a job and go again, if you get it wrong to whom are you accountable? If it goes wrong, what are we going to do—stick a minister's head on the block and chop it off? Maybe Mr Byers was badly advised, do we only know.
  (Mr Mulgan) In the British system, and I think it is the right way to run things, Ministers make all the decisions, Ministers are accountable for those decisions, and advisers advise. If they provide good advice, Ministers will follow it; if they provide bad advice, Ministers will ignore it, and the accountability arrangements are precisely clear and, I think, correct. The use of outside advisers in no way changes that.

  316. The image that we see portrayed in the papers is that you guys run government, you are the Prime Minister's Department. Here is the Department, it is you three, and you sit there giving all this advice bringing between 50 and 100 people at any one time to advise and all the rest of it. What is the point of having a Cabinet, why have Ministers? Why do you guys not tell, whoever, Clare Short to keep her mouth shut and do this and that? What is the point?
  (Mr Mulgan) It is very important to emphasise—and Michael and Wendy were saying this as well—that we have a Civil Service of about half a million people, yet we have a very small centre. Most of the work of government is done in departments, it has to be done in departments and can only be done in departments. The centre should not and indeed cannot take all those roles onto itself. The great majority of work we do essentially is providing support for departments, sometimes providing joint teams, sometimes providing advice to Secretaries of State, sometimes helping them solve problems which they are finding hard to solve on their own, sometimes dealing with cross-cutting issues which departments cannot deal with on their own. We are not bossing them around. I think it is very important for you to understand that we do not have very much formal power, we have no budgets, we do not have tanks we can send on to anyone's lawns—

  317. You do—
  (Mr Mulgan) If I can finish. We work primarily through influence and unless we can influence key decision makers, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, the wider government and, indeed, public agencies, in fact, we cannot get very much done.

  318. You have access to the Prime Minister. That is your power. Through the Secretary of the Cabinet, you have access to the Prime Minister. You have a lot more power than any department. A department cannot go up and see the Prime Minister. Ministers have got to go once a week to Cabinet. You can get access; it is power.
  (Mr Mulgan) It does not look like that from where we sit.

  319. It looks like that from what we read and what we see.
  (Mr Mulgan) A Secretary of State running a large department with budgets of many billions, sometimes hundreds of thousands of staff working for them—these are very, very powerful people. We only succeed to the extent that we can persuade those individuals that we are adding something to their work, providing them with some insights, some tools, some analysis which enables them to do their job better and if we did not do that then, frankly, we should not exist.


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