Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)

PROFESSOR MICHAEL BARBER, DR WENDY THOMSON AND MR GEOFF MULGAN

THURSDAY 11 JULY 2002

  320. You have got a fundamental problem. John Prescott, a very respectable politician may I say, said "the reality is, we know departments do not deliver". Is he saying they cannot deliver so you are having to deliver? You are now delivering, are you not, so that is your power, you are the Delivery Unit of the Civil Service?
  (Mr Mulgan) Michael can speak for the delivery side. My work involves strategy. As I have said, the great majority of our work is essentially collaborative with departments, it is not supplanting departments. People come and work in my unit from departments. The projects we do have sponsor Ministers from departments. We report to Secretaries of State as well as to the Prime Minister. The view that there is some sort of Stalinist command and control centre which we are sitting in, in the midst of pulling levers and pressing buttons is a very long way from the truth.

  321. I thought you summed that up rather nicely at the end. What about an organogram? Let us have an organogram. The Stalinist approach is to have an organogram. Have you got one?
  (Professor Barber) You asked for an organogram last week. Sir Andrew Turnbull is going to provide you with one.

  Chairman: Ian, you have got it already. Kevin?

Kevin Brennan

  322. I apologise in advance that I will be leaving before the end of the session. The Chairman was asking about targets earlier on. You do hear from time to time allegations that the Government suffers now from "target-itis" and that achieving targets is a substitute for real delivery. Do you think that that is unfair and do you think there is a problem with relying on targets as a way of measuring outcomes in terms of policy which gives you the potential danger of what used to be called economic disintermediation in that all activities are perversely skewed in order to meet the target and, as a result, the general work of government suffers?
  (Professor Barber) I will start. Clearly getting targets well designed and not having too many is important, that is the first thing. Personally, I think the targets that have been developed over now two Spending Reviews, and the third one about to come through, provide clarity about what the Government is seeking to achieve, which is after all what a target is. With the public money that is being invested in the public services, is a huge advance on what went before. Obviously government will get better at doing these things. Your question I think needs to be answered beyond that. Clearly hitting targets is important if the target is well designed. I think you need, also, to recognise that a target is usually based on some measurement system, maybe school tests or maybe some other set of data, and the data is only good if it represents reality. Therefore, if the target is well designed and based on good data collection systems that are based on reality, it will be reflected also in public perceptions and public experience of the reality. Obviously hitting the target in some kind of statistical sense is not delivery unless that public reality and that public perception comes with it. If the target is well designed and the data collection systems are sensible and the policy is being implemented, and that is causing the target to be hit, then the reality and the perception should come through.

  323. Before you develop that any further, could you give us an example in recent years of a badly designed government target, one that would fall into that category that you have just mentioned?
  (Professor Barber) Badly designed targets are ones where you cannot necessarily measure whether or not it has been achieved and when it would not represent reality. I cannot immediately think of a badly designed target.

  324. Can anybody help us on that, perhaps Wendy Thomson or, have they all been well designed? You have said they have been improved and there has been a process of improvement in the way the targets have developed. We have learned things in recent years with the development of targets. What is an example of what was wrong with previous targets and which ones were not very good?
  (Dr Thomson) I think it is worth just reflecting on what it was like having no targets. The whole development of targets has been in reaction to a great concern in public policy about demonstrating value for public investment. The whole relationship of trust between taxation and expenditure needs to be able to demonstrate some delivery on targets and it is continually being improved. Internationally, Britain's system of targeting and national[1] allocation is viewed with some admiration.

  325. I know. We were in the Netherlands recently and they are going down the same road. They have found that the very high levels of satisfaction with public services are not good enough, they need some targets as well to go along with that to be fulfilled. You are still not answering my question. I am beginning to get frustrated as to why you are reluctant to give me an example of badly designed targets?
  (Mr Mulgan) If you go back ten years, a lot of the targets in the public sector were essentially about activities, the things people did. They were not about outputs, they were not about outcomes achieved. Some police forces then were having to deal with several hundred performance indicators which did not correlate very closely with what the public cared about, with cutting crime, and were in that sense, probably, in retrospect, quite flawed. There has been a learning process over the last decade. Our targets have become fewer in number, as Michael was saying, more focused on real outcomes. Critically, too, they have base lines. To have targets when you do not have a base line and you do not know where you are starting from is bound to lead to problems. Again, if you look back ten or fifteen years there were quite a lot of targets set where people did not know what the starting point was. I think we have made a great deal of progress in that respect. I hope that the targets which are now driving policy are fewer, linked to the things which matter, are measurable and are what accountability should be about. I think it is worth emphasising targets are one of the ways in which Government is accountable to the public who pay their taxes and give government's authority.

  Kevin Brennan: I am not sure I am any wiser.

  Chairman: Keep pressing.

Kevin Brennan

  326. I will have one more go. NHS waiting list targets which were introduced after 1997, were they well designed targets or did they lead to any of the point I made in the opening part of my question, what I call disintermediation? Did they skew resources and activities in any way that perhaps was not helpful to the overall health of delivering good health to the public through the NHS?
  (Professor Barber) I was not involved in the monitoring of those targets in that Parliament. I think what I can say for sure is that the focus now on waiting times is a real step forward. So that is an example of a step forward, a learning process in the design of targets and the hitting of waiting times' targets meets the criteria I set out a few minutes ago for what is a good target which will be experienced and seen as real by people who use the Health Service. I think that is real progress.

Chairman

  327. So a waiting list does count as a bad target then really?
  (Professor Barber) I am not saying it was a bad target. No, if a target is good, hit, then you move on to a better target that does not mean you are saying that the previous target was a bad target, I am not saying that.

Kevin Brennan

  328. There is an easier way, is there not, to reduce waiting lists and waiting times and that is not to go out and seek people in the most deprived areas who have the problems and do not already present themselves to the NHS with ill-health. The point I am making is that the target sometimes can have perverse effects. You are not telling me that there have been any perverse effects. I thought you would be very interested in those targets that have failed, that are badly designed, so you can design better ones which do not have perverse effects. You have not told me an example of one that is badly designed and has had a perverse effect, why can you not tell me that or is there not one?
  (Professor Barber) I have given you an example of progress from one to another. Let me give you another example from the last Parliament that I worked on personally, and I am qualified to talk about. It is the literacy target for 11 year olds. That target people said would have perverse effects because you were concentrating on level 4 of the national curriculum so people said it would not affect the level 2/level 3 boundary or the level 4/level 5 boundary. As that progress towards that target was made, we monitored whether those perverse effects did actually occur and it turns out they did not. Actually there was progress at level 2 to level 3 and level 4 to level 5 as well at the boundary where the target was set. When you set a target you have to remember the point I made a few minutes ago that it is a representation of reality and you still need to keep checking the reality. As you look at the waiting times targets you can anticipate what might be perverse effects and see if those are occurring. In the case of the waiting times' targets there is actually a whole range of things that you would want to check and those perverse consequences are not occurring. It is important not just to check the one line of data but to check the reality around it.
  (Dr Thomson) Can I add, also, there have been other forms of targets to address; some of the concerns we would have about deprived communities, for example, communities that I have spent most of my life in. As a result of the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the work done across Government in deprived areas we have devised four targets which commit us to four levels in the most deprived communities in the country for things like employment, health, education. That is another measure to go alongside targets which ensures there is no one sector which falls below a certain level. That is a huge step forward. Titmuss's first piece was centred on the social division of welfare which showed that those communities never benefit unless you make particular efforts. The Social Exclusion Unit's work demonstrates much the same. Before we could have concerns that we did not have a way of addressing it, now we have some machinery which at least allows us to target those areas in a particular way.

Brian White

  329. One of the targets that is frequently quoted as a very good catalyst but is out of date is the target for e-Government where the continued reliance on putting government online by 2005 is resulting in many departments simply putting the current offline system, good or bad, on to a web page rather than trying to make transactional changes which some of the best examples show. So how are you monitoring that and what are you doing about lifting or changing that target that might send the wrong signal?
  (Professor Barber) That is not a target I am working on.
  (Mr Mulgan) That is one for the e-Envoy's Office to answer. In some ways it is a good example of the evolutionary point Michael mentioned. It is a target that was perhaps a bit too simple and steps are being taken to reach it. I do not think anyone would say that target should not be there, but what you and others are saying is it needs to be made more sophisticated and to address actual usage of on-line services. That is what one looks at next. In some ways it is a symptom of success that the argument moves on. This is true of all targets. They are not magic wands, they are not perfect, they can have distorting impacts. What is important is we learn quickly and we spot if there are any unwanted side-effects and we keep updating them and re-thinking them and ensuring they are about what really matters, and are not some proxy for what matters.

  330. We here would remind you that Oldham Borough Council has a whole series of targets. The Audit Commission is measuring those targets and they are doing very well, but it did not stop the riots and it did not stop that report coming out and saying "what we want is a whole series of solutions that can be measured" but which were the original key performance indicators that they were already meeting. It did not have that translation onto the ground. What are you doing about that kind of problem?
  (Dr Thomson) I have not recently looked in detail at the statistics on Oldham, but many local authorities in the country are still working their way towards anything above level two on the Commission for Racial Equality's Code of Conduct. I think I need to check on that particular one to see how Oldham is doing.

  331. It is one of the better ones.
  (Dr Thomson) The overall judgment of a council must be its relationship to its population. One of the expectations of Best Value is that they regularly consult and survey and poll and discuss with their community how they are doing. I have been in Oldham and I would think that the people who were working there were quite aware of some of the issues that were coming up. They are not easy ones to tackle. Measurement is only one device amongst a whole range that you could use to judge how they are doing. I do not think you could say that was necessarily a perverse incentive because you cannot achieve some of those overall goals unless you have a good working relationship with your community.
  (Professor Barber) I want to reinforce that last point. Even though my job is monitoring the implementation of key targets, it is very important to make clear that targets, however good and however much focused on the priorities, are not everything, it is not what the whole of government is for, it is not all it can do. You are all well aware of that but in that case adjusting the targets does not necessarily represent the full-scale range of things that need to be resolved in Oldham—culture, relationships, trust, equality, other issues related to the targets.
  (Mr Mulgan) It is very important that we understand that they are tools to support judgment; they are not substitutes for judgment. The heart of the job of a Minister or an official is to make judgments in often quite complex, quite uncertain situations. Good targets make it easier to make the right judgments but they are not a substitute.

  332. When we did our study looking at innovations in government and looking at Newcastle, we came across a situation where they had something like 43 different funding mechanisms and some poor souls had 43 different ways of reporting and spent all their time trying to satisfy 43 different masters. That was in a report that the Government agreed they would look at. What has happened about that myriad of education action zones, health action zones, that whole plethora of different reporting and different funding streams, the whole question where they found they had run out of funding by the end of the second or third year? What have you done to change that climate?
  (Dr Thomson) I recognise the syndrome you describe. I think you will find that it was a subject of one of the PIU's early works which was looking at how you can join up some of those efforts. One of the impacts of that study was creating the Regional Co-ordination Unit and one of its early tasks was looking at the area-based initiatives. There was a lot of concern by Cabinet to rationalise what are nearly 40 different streams of area-based initiatives. The last check I made on this a couple of days ago showed that they are very close to achieving quite a reduction in those numbers as well as a general rationalisation plan and the other ring-fencing that was promised as a result of the Local Government White Paper. It is not easy once you have set these things up to rationalise them but there is a very deep commitment to do so. A great deal of work has begun on that. That was in the past. One of the positive things with the future is that most of the action zones have been wound into the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme and the single capital pot is now a much more flexible way that both local government and regional government have available to them to deploy on projects, so that some of that much more close-knit funding allocation and project monitoring (which I know quite well from my experience) is now allowed.

  333. They claim that promises were made that ring-fencing would be reduced, so why are they up in arms at their conference last week saying basically they are being ignored?
  (Dr Thomson) You were making the point about the area-based initiatives and on that there is certainly progress being made. There are also, as I am sure you will be aware, many freedoms and flexibilities that were mentioned in the Local Government White Paper which were promised and have now been taken forward in the Local Government Bill which was published at the beginning of this month. So there is quite a long list running to three or four pages of new freedoms and flexibilities associated with the Act.

  334. If you have solved the different funding streams—
  (Dr Thomson) I did not say we had solved them, I said we had improved it. I would not claim that we had solved it.

  335. One of the other issues was the silo mentality and departmental budgets being ring-fenced within a department and the problems where you had a cross-departmental project of who pays for it and typically one department got a benefit and a different department was having to pay for it. How have you solved those issues?
  (Mr Mulgan) Those are all questions of balance and I do not think we would claim we have solved them. There are still many areas where there are too many funding streams and different accountability arrangements, time scales and so on. One of the jobs of parts of the centre and of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is to try and take an overview of how those are experienced on the ground by local authorities and local organisations, which often find them very burdensome in terms of management time to cope with. As Wendy said, quite a lot of progress has been made. We have the Local Strategic Partnerships bringing these different initiatives together. We have a much clearer role for government regional offices in acting as co-ordinaters, again cutting out bureaucracy. Right across government it is now recognised that cutting paperwork and bureacracy within the public sector is as important as cutting bureaucracy was in the private sector back in the 1980s and 1990s, and is key to effective delivery. In all of this, as I say, one has to strike a balance because departments legitimately want to pursue individual policies which may make good sense in their own terms. They have to be balanced in terms of the overall impact that has on an individual local authority. That is a balance we need to strike. Most of government is still organised in vertical structures and probably always will have to be to be effective. It is the balance between that and taking a horizontal overview, whether it is over cross-cutting issues or capacities to respond at the local level which is the key thing. I do not think we could claim that this issue is solved, I do not think it will ever be solved. What is important is that it is much more clearly recognised as an issue than was the case a few years ago.
  (Professor Barber) If I can give two or three examples of where there is increasingly effective inter-departmental collaboration. The Sure Start initiative is a very good example of it. There is a growing and I think very promising collaboration between DCMS and DFES on school sport. On the Government's street crime initiative there is a big contribution from a whole series of departments to progress in that area. There are growing examples quite specifically of the things that Geoff is talking about.
  (Dr Thomson) I would add, also, on the local government front, work that has just recently been agreed by the Central Local Partnership to have a set of agreed national priorities for services across local and central government. This was welcomed by the LGA. It is going to be reflected in the national PSA which will then be the basis of the local public service agreements that local authorities have advocated for themselves. This year we anticipate having a more focused set of targets for that agreement which has been negotiated across government departments and with local government. It will not solve everything but it is an improvement. On the same lines joint inspection and auditing arrangements have been introduced across local government, since I was last here.

  336. I would agree with Michael on his excellent example of something which works very well but the head of that was brought in from outside. One of the problems is that a lot of the Senior Civil Service grew up in the Civil Service at the time when it was policy led and implementation was something you could look at other people to do. How are you transforming that culture so that implementation matters? What do you do when you find a civil servant who is obstructive or a department that is obstructive, not necessarily openly? How do you hold the individual civil servants to account?
  (Dr Thomson) One of the programmes that I mentioned to you when I was last here has been taken forward now which is a systematic approach to the issues that you are raising. We have been designing the features of the high performing organisation that departments now need to resemble in order to deliver in today's climate. We are working with departments to see how well they can assess their own capacities and constraints against those features of what a really good organisation will be like.[2] We are working with three departments on this programme. It is a very practical way in which the people involved in those departments can be clear what skills are required individually and how they need to work together differently in order to create a change of culture. Any kind of culture change with a workforce like this is going to be led by the clarity of purpose which attracts people to the public service. That is one of our greatest assets with which we must work. I do not think it is a question of identifying people and what we are going to do with them. It is just clarifying the purpose of the modern Civil Service, helping people find practical ways of getting themselves up individually and practically to achieve those things. Sometimes it requires bringing in external supports from wherever is necessary to skill people up. This sort of departmental programme, which we completed in one department and are mid-way through in two others, we will be publishing the results of later on this year. It works on the development side of the delivery agenda and works alongside the work that Michael has been doing which focuses on specific areas and gearing those areas up in a much more focused way. The two work together.


  (Professor Barber) I think what Andrew Turnbull said to you last week about getting a combination of outsiders and career civil servants is important. In our case we are all relatively recent arrivals in government. I just want to put on the record that in none of the departments that we are working with have we come across any civil servants who have been obstructive at all. On the contrary, the commitment to delivery is very high. There are some who do not have the skills as a team or as an individual and in that case we can address that. In some cases the framework around which people have been trying to work to deliver has been improved as well. There is no lack of commitment to delivery.


  (Mr Mulgan) The culture has shifted remarkably quickly on this and this new batch of fast streamers entering the Civil Service want to work in delivery jobs. They have got the message that is the route to progression, not the Ministerial offices, not spending all their time in Whitehall. I think that is a hugely valuable step in terms of the culture and it has happened much quicker than I would have expected.

  Chairman: It is interesting to have you say that. Gordon?

Mr Prentice

  337. Yes. Andrew Turnbull when he was here last week he said to us "The first thing I am going to do is to take the various units and try to get them to work together". Were you not working together very productively before?
  (Professor Barber) Where shall we start? I would not want to give the impression of anything other than collaboration. My view is that in June of last year when the three units were established, that was a big step forward, for the reasons we have been discussing in the last half an hour or so. Andrew's reorganisation of the Cabinet Office is a logical progression. So we have one step forward and this is the logical next step forward. I think we have worked very well together and we look forward to working together even more closely in the future.

  338. It is worth saying I have the impression he is going to be very hands on, taking a personal interest in your particular area of work.
  (Mr Mulgan) I was going to say, you can have a very simple organisational structure which is full of factions, infighting and conflict, and you can have a quite complicated structure which actually works very well together so long as the individuals are very clear what they are trying to achieve, have a shared sense of purpose, communicate well with each other and work well with each other. That is the case with us, we all like each other and know each other quite well. I think it is a good model and the structures do not matter all that much. We could have lots of different structures and organograms but so long as we get those basics rights it will work and it will deliver. I welcome very much the fact that Andrew has signalled that his style of management is going to be in a sense building on that and making the centre perhaps work even more corporately than perhaps was the case in the past.
  (Dr Thomson) I take it as him signalling the commitment he is making to reform very much a focus. It is a unique characteristic of the time at which he is joining and the task that faces this Government and the commitment it has made. I think it will enhance our capacity to work in a focused and strategic way.

  339. I am interested in blue skies thinking and I read the piece that Geoff Mulgan wrote in Public Finance where you tell us that many governments think they cannot afford the luxury of worrying about what the world might like look like in ten years' hence. What is Britain going to look like in ten years' hence because you have been doing a lot of this blue skies thinking?
  (Mr Mulgan) One of the lessons of any thinking about the future is Sam Goldwyn's comment that it is unwise to prophesy especially about the future. The serious point is that our job is not to say "This is what the world is going to look like in ten years' time" but to help people think through what it might look like, what some of the challenges might be and some of the things which governments have not thought about. If you look back ten or fifteen years, not many people thought that during the 1990s we would have a civil war in Europe, half a billion people would be using the Internet. Not many people thought that the US would be a boom economy, Japan would be in a slump, and a lot of what our work is about is getting government and Ministers more ready for a very unpredictable and very uncertain future and more focused on ensuring that the strategies they are pursuing, the policies they are pursuing will work in a variety of different environments not just assuming that the world will continue as it is.

 


1   Witness Correction: resource. Back

2   Note by Witness: And take steps to bridge the gaps. Back

 
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