Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 640 - 659)



  640. Do you believe there should be a Civil Service Act?
  (Dr Thomson) I think the Government is committed to a Civil Service Act.

  641. Are you a Canadian?
  (Dr Thomson) Yes. I do not know which football team to support.

  642. Are you an enforcer of public services? The Canadians have a federal enforcer of public services. Do you think that that is the line that we should be going down?
  (Dr Thomson) I really do not know the Canadian system. I have been away a very long time.

  643. The reason I am asking is that there is an Office of the Ethics Counsellor or which looks after what you are trying to do, enforcing public services, so you are not delivering; you are actually enforcing the rights of public service. They have a staff of 23 and they work very much along the same lines as you do, but they are part of the federal government, very much mainstream, looking after the ethos and the ability of public services to deliver. Do you think that is the way that you should be looking?
  (Dr Thomson) As I say, I am not familiar with the arrangements.

  644. I am just asking. I have told you the background to it.
  (Dr Thomson) In very broad terms. It is not what I would describe as what we are doing. I do not see us as an enforcer in public service.

  645. So that would be Michael Barber's job, would it?
  (Dr Thomson) I do not think Michael would describe himself as an enforcer either. We have a role to facilitate the delivery of government objectives for public service reform and we will do that by working with departments in the areas I have described. My experience of change management, and I have some extensive and varied experience to go on, is that you do not get people to change by enforcing things. You need to persuade people of the need for change and work with them to deliver it. It takes a bit longer and sometimes telling them looks easier but it does not actually work.

  646. I am glad you said that. Principle two, devolution to local level to encourage diversity and creativity—that is part of what you just said. How do you create creativity in the Health Service?
  (Dr Thomson) One of the important aspects of the principles we are describing is recognising that you get the most from people if you provide clarity of purpose and clear standards. Once people are in a framework like that where they have got responsibility but also clarity of purpose, they are more likely to find creative solutions. I think you will find lots of examples of that if you go round public services where people have been able to find innovative and different ways of doing things. We need to engender and motivate people to do that. What we do not want is telling people what to do and then having them merely comply.

  647. Just one last question on that. I had a delegation come up from my constituency, which is Somerset, so it is very rural, and they were pretty cross to say the least about the way public services are going, and you know they had a demonstration out here recently. You are saying here that we should be rewarding success so that good services prosper and poor ones improve or are replaced. Are you in favour of privatisation of public services?
  (Dr Thomson) I am in favour of services that work.

  648. Are you in favour of privatisation?
  (Dr Thomson) I do not think we should be taking on values that are in favour of privatisation or exclusive public ownership. What has to me been helpful about public service management more recently is that we have been freed up to think of how we can best provide what the public requires.

  649. So achieving that through PPPs, PFIs?
  (Dr Thomson) A whole range of things. I have worked in the voluntary sector and there is a long tradition there of providing very much valued services, particularly in the personal care services such as home care services, residential care, particularly with people with different languages, black and ethnic minority communities, who have not found the mainstream statutory services satisfactory to them, so we have to find more diverse ways of reaching those needs. To me pragmatism, as long as it is within a framework of clear public services, is a great resource and frees up resources to people to get the best deal for the public.

  Chairman: Just before we leave this, I am still not quite clear where you are coming from.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Neither am I.


  650. There are two schools of thought. There are people who say public services are wonderful, they are infused with the public service ethos, we need to protect them and defend them, and there are those who say (which is the view of government on the whole) that public services are pretty dreadful and we have got to sort them out. You are an expert in change management, as you describe it. On the one hand you seem to be saying that in public services there are all sorts of exciting things happening, all these dynamic people and so on. If that were true the other thing would not be true, would it, and your office would not exist? I am just wondering where you come from on this.
  (Dr Thomson) I come from the reality that both things were true, that there is excellence in public services and there is under-performance, and that we have that variation in our public services. No-one is saying as far as I am aware that everything is perfect or that everything is all bad. We need to improve our services that are not so good. My response to privatisation is merely that we should be using whatever methods are available to us to make that improvement work for the public.

Mr Prentice

  651. On that same theme, your principle four is the promotion of greater choice and alternative providers. How realistic is it across the public service to have alternative providers waiting in the wings to rush forward and pick up the service if it fails?
  (Dr Thomson) The principle is just recognising that the public prefer to have choice where they can. Research shows that more popular services are about more information and more information leads to more choice. I think that is what is being recognised. Where we can do that we should. I do not think there is any belief that we can do that everywhere all the time but there will be opportunities. I would agree with you that there is not a waiting capacity to provide an alternative provision everywhere. In some places there are; in some places we need to create it.

  652. I would be interested in hearing some specifics there because we have heard over the weeks that we have been conducting this inquiry about alternative provision in education, alternative provision in health, and I just wonder if you could identify areas of public service where there should be alternative providers waiting in the wings.
  (Dr Thomson) I gave some examples in personal care services that I have been responsible for in the past where I really was convinced that diversity was very important for people, because we were excluding some people from services unless there was a range of choice for people. Home care services, residential care services are two examples. I think in housing services people want choice. The days when you could have one council house and it is this one are no longer acceptable to people. I also think there are times when, if there has been a public service failure, you need quick solutions because the public will not tolerate years and years of things not working, so a market was created to deal with local education authorities who were letting down the schools in their area. The schools rely on the services provided by the LEA and it was necessary in a very small number of LEAs for there to be alternative help and support to those LEAs.

  653. But why as an alternative do you not do something about managerial leadership in the public services? Why not pay people in leadership roles a large sum of money like Bob Kiley, and if they do not deliver you just sack them instead of having all these alternative providers waiting in the wings?
  (Dr Thomson) There is a lot being done on leadership in the public service. If you look through at what is called capacity building across government you will find a centre for school leadership; there is the Improvement and Development Agency and a Modernisation Agency and leadership centre for the NHS; you see a police academy being developed for lead people working in the police force. If you looked across the police you would actually see quite a lot of investment in leadership, and I would agree with you that that is a very important thing to do.

  654. Am I right in thinking that we are four or five years into this and in another four or five years it will all be okay because everything will be firing on all cylinders? Is that what you are saying?
  (Dr Thomson) I think that the dilemma of any service is that as it gets better people expect more. I cannot imagine a time in public services where we are resting back and saying that everything is finished. I imagine there will always be increasing challenges being faced in public services.

  655. I ask that question because I have just had the report on building cohesive communities which is looking at the disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, and the Government takes the view that it was a failure in local leadership. I thought to myself that maybe they can predict these things in central government where local communities are going to fail. Can you look at councils, public organisations, out there that look as if they are about to fail?
  (Dr Thomson) It is difficult to predict, obviously, but I think there are some good practices and features of well performing councils which you can observe when you are there. People who have visited Oldham and Bradford, places like that, could see some of the seeds of community relations that could be leading to some of the disturbances which we have recently seen. You will see in some other communities different relationships. In East London for many years we have monitored and done specific things to improve race relations, but even in those relatively healthy environments there are signs that you can still get incidences of problems there.

  656. In East London, in Newham, did you have an answer to this? Did you have a lot of extra money going in from central government?
  (Dr Thomson) Yes.

  657. Because I think resources may be the key to this.
  (Dr Thomson) There were resources as well in some of the communities that were the object of this study as well.

  658. Can I ask a question about national standards? You say it is important to have national standards and yet the Local Government Association people that are going to come on after you say that there is a big tension here between national standards and local government. Local government is not local administration. You have got to let people decide things for themselves. How do you deal with that dilemma?
  (Dr Thomson) I would agree with the Local Government Association that local government is about local democracy and it certainly is not administration. The Government's White Paper published this week confirms that view, that it is very much about community leadership and local democracy. The Local Government Association has been in partnership with central government creating the national public service agreement between local government and central government. It has done that in each successive year and it will do that again in this review. My experience of the reality is that what local people want is a lot of key services and that central government priorities are quite often the same, so it did not seem difficult to me for us to be expected to provide achieving schools because that is what local people wanted. People also wanted high quality, reliable social services. There is often a synergy between what local people want and what national policy is. Within that there is still quite a lot of flexibility. The recent White Paper on changes around the modernisation programme has given local government quite considerable scope for discharging its new power of community leadership.

  659. Who decides what the national standards are? The national standards do not apply to all services offered by local government. You mentioned education, you mentioned core services. Why do they not apply to environmental health, for example? Are there national standards for environmental health and, if not, why not?
  (Dr Thomson) There are certainly quite a lot of statutory duties in that area of environmental health as it is a regulatory service, so there are professional codes and expectations of how their statutory duties will be discharged. The environmental health services are inspected along with other local government services. I think it is one of those areas where within that framework the local organisation of environmental health has been seen to be sufficient. It is a matter for government which services it thinks are of such importance that it needs to assure its citizenship that they are meeting a certain standard. Other areas seem to be areas where government is prepared to allow local variation.

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