This note summarises developments from March 2020 - the period when the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was nearing its peak. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.
Appointment of new Chief Operating Officer
Alex Chisholm was appointed Civil Service COO to replace CEO John Manzoni. It did not appear that he was expected to lead anything that could be described as radical or fundamental reform.
[The Cabinet Secretary] has asked Chisholm to “lead the ongoing transformation of the civil service to further enhance its efficiency, effectiveness and agility, creating the high performance, innovative and digitally powered service we need for the times we are in”. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove: “… Alex will be responsible for supporting ministers to develop and then drive forward a reform programme for the civil service, building on the government’s existing efficiency programme.”
PAC Criticises Transport Permanent Secretary re HS2
The Public Accounts Committee issued a report in May 2020 which was highly critical of the Department for Transport's Permanent Secretary. (The PAC is the only part of Parliament to which civil servants are directly accountable.)
It remains to be seen whether the Permanent Secretary was obeying Ministerial orders to withhold information, and if so whether she should have done. It is of course sometimes the case that officials cannot be entirely frank when giving evidence to Parliamentary committees but it is usually possible for their difficulty to be explained to the Committee Clerks, or to the Committee Chair.
Here is the summary of the PAC's report:
The High Speed Two programme has gone badly off-course and is now estimated to cost up to £88 billion, significantly more than the original budget of £55.7 billion (both figures are 2015 prices). We are unconvinced that there will not be further cost increases, such as those we have seen in Crossrail and many other programmes, especially given that the route and forecast cost of the northern sections of the proposed railway is still very uncertain and will remain so for years to come. Passengers will not see the benefits from Phase One between London and the West Midlands until 2029 at the earliest, compared to the original plan of 2026, with passengers in the North having to wait much longer while the Government decides the future of the northern sections of the railway.
As well as cost increases and delays, public confidence in the programme has been undermined. At best, the Department for Transport’s (the Department’s) previous evidence to the Committee has been less than clear. The Department withheld information from us which would have given a clearer and more accurate picture of the budget and schedule pressures the project was facing. The Department and High Speed Two Ltd (HS2 Ltd) seemed to believe that a lack of transparency with Parliament and the public on the problems facing the programme would in some way protect it. With so many peoples’ homes and livelihoods affected by the construction of the railway, there is no justification for the Department and HS2 Ltd having been so opaque about the delays and budget overruns. Now that the Government has given the programme the green light, things must change and there must be much greater transparency in future.
What we have seen about Government’s management of this programme is all too familiar and we remain concerned that lessons from the delivery of other major projects are still not being learned. To protect taxpayers’ money there should be far greater focus on fostering and embedding a culture that values learning from experience to do things even better and avoid repeating the same mistakes. We will regularly examine how this programme is progressing and what the Department and HS2 Ltd are doing to address our recommendations for improvement.
PACAC Chair - Valedictory Comments
Outgoing Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, made the following comments when interviewed by Civil Service World in April 2020.
Institutional memory and misfits
The “procession of civil servants” through critical roles is a great source of frustration for Jenkin. On several occasions, he says, PACAC has challenged government with the following question: “How do you develop an institutional memory if the civil servants are changing every two or three years?”
In the last couple of years, however, the message has started to get through.
“Everybody now says this, which is very satisfactory,” he says, pointing to the introduction of special responsibility allowances under then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. But Jenkin adds that he was disappointed to hear that only 25 officials had been given the allowance – intended to incentivise them to stay in their jobs while they oversaw big projects – and that it amounted to around 2.5% to 3% of their salary.
“That is not going to change the price of fish. If somebody is a deputy director general in charge of a very big programme and they need to stay on in that job and run that programme, they should be promoted to director general or assistant permanent secretary in that role so they can carry on developing their career and being promoted, without taking their responsibilities away and starting again with somebody else.”
As well as institutional memory, Jenkin is concerned about retaining skills. “As I’m endlessly pointing out, the Fulton Report [on the civil service] in 1967 reported that there was a ‘cult of the generalist’.
“And it’s far worse now than it used to be, in that there used to be a vertical career structure in each department. Generally, the permanent secretary would come from within that department, and they would know that department backwards.”
That is no longer the norm, he says. “I’ve even heard it said, ‘Oh, we can’t give that job to that person, he loves it too much. He knows and loves it too much, we must have somebody from outside.’ The idea being that they would somehow have been purchased by the department.
Now, he says there is a “certain lack of diversity in the way permanent secretaries tend to think – there is a house style, which typically revolves around Oxford PPE”.
His comments bring to mind the infamous blog post by top spad Dominic Cummings, urging “misfits and weirdos” to apply for civil service roles. “First of all, there are misfits and weirdos in the civil service. I would say that they are valued for their expertise, but they tend to be held down at a certain level,” Jenkin says.
PACAC once said the relationship between ministers and officials was the “fulcrum of Whitehall effectiveness”. Its 2018 report on the subject described that relationship as one of “unrequited love”.
“I didn’t quite like the phrase,” Jenkin says, but explains: “The civil servant wants to serve the minister, wants to save the minister from embarrassment, wants to save the department from embarrassment by not letting the minister do things which they think will cause embarrassment.”
Knowing this has been a great asset to Jenkin in his decade chairing PACAC, he says. “I think for select committees to get the best sides of civil service witnesses, you’ve got to understand what the relationship is with the minister. They’re not allowed to say whatever they want, or whatever they think is right.”
Asked to recall his favourite witnesses to PACAC, Jenkin says Peter Hennessy, the academic and historian of government, was “always terrific”.
Hennessy spoke to the committee about civil service leadership in 2012. “I remember when the role of the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary was split, we were asking, can this really work? And he just looked quizzically back at the committee and said, no, it won’t work. And somebody said, well, why won’t it work? ‘Because the cabinet secretary is always top dog’.”
“It was just so graphic. The government had made this whole pretence that somehow the head of the civil service and the cabinet secretary were going to share the car together from Wimbledon every morning, they were going to be equals and they were going to work as a team. And it simply didn’t operate like that, which is why Jeremy Heywood [ultimately] became head of the civil service.”