Friday, 6 December 2013

Why can't ministers and senior servants get along? A beginner's guide to bad blood, Universal Credit, blame, briefings and Civil Service Reform - Prof Perri 6, Chair in Public Management, Queen Mary

"War" has broken out, journalists say. Introducing a confrontation between Conservative MP and former police and criminal justice minister, Nick Herbert and former cabinet secretary, Lord (previously Sir Robin) Butler on BBC Radio 4’s “The Week in Westminster” on Saturday 30th November, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne positively salivated with enthusiasm in telling us that hostilities between ministers and the senior civil service are at their fiercest for generations. Conservative bloggers such as Peter Hoskin are similarly excited.

So what is the dispute about and why does it matter? As with real wars, tensions between coalition ministers and the senior mandarinate have several causes. Four issues have come together.

The most immediate casus belli is Universal Credit, the government’s scheme for merging out-of-work benefits into a single payment. This has not been a teaching case study of successful policy implementation. The Major Projects Authority concludes that £140m has been “wasted” on information technology assets which will have to be written off (the department insists that some could yet be useful). So far there have only been local pilots covering a limited number of the benefits intended to be merged. But these have shown a number of problems. Although the government announced that the scheme will be implemented nationally by 2017 except for “some” recipients of Employment Support Allowance, this seems a very ambitious goal.

So the first issue is whether the civil service is to blame. In September, the Work and Pensions minister Mr Iain Duncan Smith seemed to be accusing the civil Service ITteam. By October, the allegation was being bruited in the press – presumed on the basis of briefings from within the coalition – that the Permanent Secretary, Mr Robert Devereux, had been asleep at the wheel. Precisely because he is a civil servant, of course, Mr Devereux can’t give his version in public unless a select committee asks him a question in a way that he can answer truthfully without compromising his duty of loyalty to his minister. And that’s a tall order.
We shan’t know for months or years who was most at fault for which aspects of the Universal Credit IT debâcle. Did Mr Devereux give the project as much attention as he reasonably could, given his department’s size and the number of its other projects? Were the junior technical staff not up to the job? Or the project managers? Or were Mr Duncan Smith’s instructions clear enough to enable them to produce a clear and robust project brief? Was the aspiration too big and complicated in the first place, as critics such as Colin Talbot of the University of Manchester argued? We don’t know, but I shall not be surprised if, by the time the papers are declassified, there is some blame for everyone involved because British government IT fiascos usually arise from all those problems at once, and more.
Second, the senior civil service is offended by criticism in the press based on briefings presumed to come from ministers. Much of Lord Butler’s broadside was a denunciation of just this. The current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is reported to have defended Mr Devereux to the prime minister and, apparently, to have pinned the blame for the Universal Credit fiasco on Mr Duncan Smith instead.
This looks like the senior civil service briefing off-the-record in the manner that Lord Butler complains that ministers have been doing. But off-the-record briefing is a symptom, not a cause of the breakdown of relations.
By the time Mr Herbert squared off against Lord Butler, the issue seemed to be whether this case was symptomatic of a wider civil service inability to manage big projects. That brings us to the third issue. On “The Week in Westminster” Mr Herbert claimed that because no permanent secretary had resigned over any of the long series of big project failures from the last two decades, the senior civil service is not sufficiently accountable, and that by contrast any private sector chief executive who presided over a big fiasco would have walked the plank.
In fact, private company CEOs certainly don’t always resign when project failures come to light. It helps of course that when many corporate IT projects do fail, as they often do, CEOs rarely face a hostile media or any questioning at annual general meetings even faintly reminiscent of a grilling by the Public Accounts Committee.
In any large organisation, large projects often fail, have to be abandoned, are delivered late or over budget, produce disappointing results or have their scope drastically reduced to get implemented at all. The more fundamental question is whether we think that the most powerful incentive we can give top civil servants to get them to run big projects better is a blunt expectation that they must resign when things go wrong. One outcome of using that strategy with the senior civil service might be that we’d get resignations so often that the capability of top management would be undermined. Another is that civil servants would do everything they could to reduce the number of big projects or ambitious activities they take on. Ministers who complain that the civil service is risk averse ought to be careful what they wish for. A duty to resign for any project failure could make that problem worse. Alternatively, if ministers insist on big, high risk projects and then insist that top civil servants take the blame they go wrong, they can hardly be surprised if few really talented people want to become permanent secretaries. Putting the word “scapegoat” in a job description is not usually recommended by recruitment consultants. Even then, it isn’t very likely that ministers would escape blame by such a rule anyway. It would strain civil servants’ loyalty under our “public service bargain” too far to hope they would not respond by briefing the press that the fault lay with ministers.
Probably the fourth issue behind the current row worries the top civil servants most. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude set out proposals in June for ministers have French style “cabinets” of politically appointed staff with powers to give orders to civil servants. Whether that would apply to departments such as her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs which don’t now even have their own minister remains to be seen. For a system which has, since the 1870s, relied on a politically impartial and permanent senior tier of officials, this would be a major constitutional change. For senior civil servants, reporting to a politically appointees would mean, they fear, the final demise of their already eroded role of being the main source of policy advice to ministers, given directly and without intermediaries. At the same time, Mr Maude’s plan would make permanent secretaries, not ministers, individually accountable to parliament for the implementation of major projects. Taken together, the two measures would seal the change in the senior civil servant’s role from that of policymaker to that of managerial agent.
The senior civil service has sought to defend its roles in policymaking and policy advice against efforts by governments since the 1980s to focus the service on management and “delivery”. One of the Thatcher government’s aims for the “Next Steps” programme was to develop a cadre of senior civil servants who would gain the highest status through management rather than policymaking, but the most ambitious continued to pursue policy work. The efforts of Sir Michael Barber and his team working for Blair’s administration to concentrate top civil service minds on “delivery” may have been unduly narrow and mechanistic in approach, but civil service focus on policy work was probably an equally important reason for their limited impact on civil servants’ priorities. When the coalition formalised the already widespread use of policy advice from think tanks and management consulting firms into a programme and a set of contracts, among least some senior civil servants seem to have responded with chagrin or disdain.
 In the United States, France and Sweden, a tier of ministers’ political appointees has powers to instruct civil servants. Since none of those countries has collapsed as a result, no one can claim that ending the century and half “British tradition” must necessarily be a catastrophe. Indeed, it’s a moot point whether we can something a “British tradition” at all, which itself took twenty years of effort after the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report to get established. The commitment to a permanent civil service not reporting to political appointees was itself considerably overridden when Lloyd George brought in such personally appointed “men of push and go” as Sir Eric Geddes after 1916. Since the outbreak of war in 1939, increasing numbers of “irregulars” have been brought in to British government as temporary civil servants – more or less political appointees but given civil service status so that they issue orders to civil servants. Maude’s plan would turn them from irregulars into a different kind of “regular”, and would give them seniority over the routine kind of “regulars”.
Whether a ministerial “cabinet” with authority over the permanent officials would give ministers what they say they want is another matter altogether. Off-the-record briefings to the press in recent years suggest that ministers suspect the top civil servants of not being committed to implementing their policies. Even if that’s true – and of course it’s disputed by the civil servants – it’s far from certain that making them report to political appointees will make them more motivated. For all the merits of the French and US federal executive systems, there’s no evidence that they exhibit greater (or, admittedly, lower) levels of enthusiasm or commitment among civil servants for carrying out instructions. On the other hand, in Britain, losing opportunities to offer advice to ministers about feasibility of implementation or about scheme design – because ministers would take advice mainly from their own appointees – might make top civil servants less motivated rather than more.
Again, whatever the merits of ministerial cabinet system, there is little evidence that, in and of itself, it results in better design and execution of major projects. That France has had fewer disasters with government IT projects than the UK seems to due to quite other factors. And the fate of the Obamacare web portal reminds us that the US is capable of fiascos with its most ambitious schemes for online integration too.
A system of politically appointed senior executives in government is only as good at policy development and the oversight of civil service execution of programmes as the political appointees are. US government has sufficient resources to attract seasoned people to be political executives who have major public management experience as state governors or big city managers or who have worked in previous federal administrations. And the political parties can draw upon a large pool of experts in each ministry’s policy area who are aligned with them. The French system today – to the chagrin of many French critics – draws on a much narrower pool of talent. Tory, Labour and especially Liberal Democrat ministers in Britain would face difficulties in recruiting cabinet staff who are party loyalists, who understand the civil service but are not of it, who know what the implementing agencies and authorities can do, who understand how cross-departmental working in Whitehall has to be achieved, who can appreciate what costings are realistic, but who also have the political savvy to provide ministers with adroit political advice. Rather few people with all those characteristics are to be found in London’s think tanks or in party headquarters. Some might be found in local government, but not enough to meet the requirement.
The present senior civil servants say that they fear that politically appointed cabinets will be echo chambers, not places where even the political appointees will “speak truth to power”, let alone the permanent civil servants who are not invited. The evidence from other countries is mixed: toleration for challenge, use of devil’s advocates, interest in evidence and practice of open-minded deliberation vary widely between governments and between ministries in France and the US. Since Lord Butler complained on “The Week in Westminster” that even now under the coalition, civil servants are punished for speaking truth to power, even in private, one wonders whether political appointees would really be much more cowed than civil servants may be today.
But perhaps a more interesting question is how or how far Mr Maude’s system might address the demand from Mr Herbert for “accountability”, when that is understood as requiring resignation when things go wrong. If senior civil servants are to be asked to go when projects fail, under what circumstances will the tier of political appointees themselves resign, after being found to have advised a minister on a misconceived scheme?
As with most things in government, the first decision should be to choose which problem ministers most want to solve.
If we want to reduce the number of big project fiascos, it would be better to begin with a serious discussion about the issues of just how big and how complex a plan for a project has to be, before we can reasonably expect that it will probably go badly and ministers ought to be asked for something more practicable. Then we should look again at the organisational capability of project management in the civil service rather than endlessly fiddling with the sequence of approval stages for plans.
If we want to do something about civil service commitment, then we should come up with a set of explanations of just where, why and how far a deficit of commitment is important in explaining weak performance, and where, why and how far problems are due instead to poor management systems. Of those weak systems, one should be addressed as a priority. Few civil servants working on major projects work on them from beginning to end, whereas in local government it is much more common for the same managers to carry responsibility throughout a project’s life. The civil service moves them on sometimes after only a few months. The same has too often been true of ministers themselves. Until both ministerial and civil service career moves are more closely tied to project and programme achievement, project management will not be greatly improved just with improved techniques or more oversight at the various approval stages.
But if on the other hand, we really want to find a way to reduce ministers’ exposure to blame whenever things do wrong and instead transfer that exposure to civil servants, then perhaps we ought first to ask how we expect to adjust the “public service bargain” at the same time to offer some positive incentive for talented people to want to do senior jobs in the public service. More sticks and sermons without carrots may make for good headlines but usually make for poorly motivated organisations.
But the present “war” in the media so far suggests that may be all we shall get.

I am very grateful to Colin Talbot and Janice Morphet for their comments on an earlier draft of this post. Of course, neither bears any responsibility for my mistakes, nor should they be presumed to share my views.


  1. This seems curiously bloodless, as if relations between Tory ministers and a group of public servants could be parsed without regard to ideology or the central intent of this government to shrink the state (ie diminish public sector employment prospects). Treated as rational actors (a limited but not useless perspective) we might imagine the civil service would have problems with this govt on the grounds that it's objective interests are being hurt. Add to that the publicly expressed contempt for many aspects of civil service activity by ministers ('rational' in terms of their project) and you might expect trouble.
    What's interesting is how unformed the Tory state project is, in terms of its consequences for how Whitehall does and might operate. Have ministers ever worked through what shrinkage implies for commitment or operations? What about restructuring, for which some degree of compliance is necessary?
    What we have instead is a mix of strong talk, fiscal delivery and cowardice. Why is Robert Devereux still in post, despite the briefing? Ditto Bob Kerslake? The answer is partly the prime minister's indifference and reliance on Jeremy Heywood, partly the dynamics of relations between ministers, especially F Maude and colleagues.
    But that's to make the matter, again, personalities. Don't we need some elaboration, beyond the province not just of journalism but a curious kind of journalism based on inferences, private material and unsourced sources

  2. 'IT projects' at this scale are rarely actually IT projects. The moment any project (Private or Public) gets branded an IT project rather than a transformational project facilitated by IT changes, it is almost certainly heading for a fall. Immediately the IT department or oursourcer is now in charge of reorganising the business processes as well as looking after the IT piece, and is rarely the best to push such change through. These projects need to be owned by the business, not IT. There is a reason many successful IT services companies now push Services rather than IT, it's because the service delivery, not the IT delivery, is the key piece. Any time such a project is branded an IT project I expect failure.

    On name and shaming of Civil Servants by MPs I consider that simple Management failure by MPs, whatever else is going on. Shaming subordinates in public is never good Management, there are ways these things should be done. It shows, among other things, total competence failure by those MPs.

  3. Dear David,

    Thank you very much for your thoughts on my argument. I am grateful to you for making the time to comment on it.
    I don’t think we can be sure that the senior civil service is motivated above all to fight to maintain the size of the state or the size of public sector employment. There has been a protracted debate about this argument now since the American political economist, William Niskanen, advanced the idea about forty years ago. In fact, the evidence from the countries which did attempt, with varying degrees of success, to shrink either the payroll count or the overall size of the state in 1980s, and even from Sweden which felt forced to do so in the 1990s, is that the senior civil service was rarely a major source of resistance to such policies. To be sure, public sector trades unions representing more junior and frontline staff did resist shrinkage, just as they are doing in Britain today. But when the senior civil service pursues what it regards as its own interests, it seems in most countries to be more preoccupied by trying to preserve its policymaking role than in protecting the size of its empires, as measures by cash spending or headcount. Indeed, many senior civil servants have described themselves as taking pride (whether warrantedly or not, I leave to you to judge) in their abilities to design cutback management strategies which they regard as creatively sustaining or else innovating in the core purposes of their departments and agencies in ways that both keep ministers happy and preserve their own policy roles. The argument that is what the senior civil service cares about was the thought behind Patrick Dunleavy’s “bureau shaping” thesis from just over twenty years ago. The details of his argument are debatable, but the underlying thought has usually been found to be roughly right that top civil servants seek power, control, influence more than they seek to defend the size of their organisations.
    I should expect that the present crop of permanent secretaries and agency chairs and chief executives will be sad to have to make cuts, but I doubt that they will regard any desire to resist cuts as their biggest beef with coalition ministers right now. As I argue in my piece, I think what probably offends them much more is the threat of exclusion from policy making under Mr Maude’s plans for reform of Whitehall.
    Is that argument bloodless? Well, I think there are more kinds of liquid flowing through the arteries and veins of the body politic than ideological beliefs about the size of the state, important as those clearly are both to Mr Osborne and – for example – to Mr Balls.
    On the other points you make, I agree strongly. I remain to be convinced that the Treasury has a clear plan for the way in which its reduction will achieved, or how sufficient consent will be sustained for the kind of state which would be left if their spending targets were fully achieved for the Conservative Party to be elected with the kind of working majority to govern alone ministers want. I don’t have the kind of inside sources for which you ask to do the journalist job you describe. But I do agree with you that it should be done.

    Best wishes


  4. Dear Chris,

    Thank you very much for your comment on my piece.
    To be fair to Mr Duncan Smith, he didn’t present “Universal Credit” as an IT project but as a benefit reform. What we don’t know enough about is how it was explained, managed and conducted within the department. All that has been made public is the fact that the failures were first blamed on the IT team for poor technical design and then on the Permanent Secretary for oversight of the project.
    I agree about the high road to failure is to focus on the technology rather than the point.
    Your point about “ownership” is important for a different reason, though. It is in the nature of a merger of the kind that Universal Credit is supposed to be about, that none of the teams or divisions in the organisation which are to be brought together will seem themselves as engaged in simple “acquisition” of the others. Rather, I suspect that many of them may well have seen themselves as being subsumed. That may make for rather different motivation than we might expect to see in a department or a division engaged in making an administrative takeover.
    You write – and I presume that you must have Mr Duncan Smith in mind? – that “shaming subordinates in public is never good management”. From his remarks reported in the press in the autumn, I suspect that Mr Duncan Smith’s view must be that the civil servants are not subordinates of ministers in the sense that you probably had in mind when you used the word. And that’s precisely the issue behind Mr Maude’s proposals for a new politically appointed tier around ministers with powers to instruct civil servants and for permanent secretaries rather than ministers to be accountable to parliament for project failures. What Mr Maude’s plan could do might well be to entrench very clearly the demarcation line between ministers and civil servants, not as leaders and led in one organisation but as principals and agents, with right to insist on the ministerial side and duty to accept blame for failures almost entirely on the civil service side.

    Best wishes