The NAO yesterday published a devastating report on DWP’s ‘over-ambitious’ Universal Credit program managed by a team with a’ fortress mentality’ in which ‘only good news was allowed’ (according to an NAO Director speaking on the Today Programme). This led to the responsible Secretary of State, Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), quickly blaming the incompetence of his officials, followed in turn by unattributable briefing against DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux. It was of course quite impossible for anyone outside government to tell whether IDS’ criticisms were justified, or whether IDS had set unreasonable objectives and/or refused to deploy sufficient resources and/or imposed an unrealistic timetable – or a mixture of all four.
The NAO report certainly (‘though only implicitly) highlighted the unpredictable consequences that might flow from the Government’s 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan. Would officials who were faced with unrealistic Ministerial demands (a) refuse to sign them off (thus damaging their relationship with their Minister), or (b) sign them off and take the risk of the project failing down the line?
Then earlier today, the Public Administration Select Committee published a very strong report with (remarkably) only one recommendation – highlighted in its summary – extracts below:
Tensions between ministers and officials have become all too evident in recent years. We recognise that many ministers feel their decisions are being deliberately blocked or frustrated, but this points to a more deeper problem in our system of government. There is a fundamental question about why ministers feel some civil servants are resistant to what they want and this question has not been considered in any systematic way. Failing organisations demonstrate common characteristics, such as a lack of openness and trust, which are very evident in some departments and agencies. In our deliberations with ministers and civil servants most recognise a prevalence of these behaviours. We remain unconvinced that the Government has developed the analysis, policies and leadership to address these problems.
The Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability is not only crucial to Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account. It is at the core of the relationship between ministers and officials. …. This Report is exceptional. We make only one recommendation: the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission into the Civil Service, in the form of a joint committee of both Houses. The independent evidence in favour of some kind of comprehensive strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service is overwhelming
We cannot emphasise enough the importance of this recommendation, reflected by the unanimous support of the House of Commons Liaison Committee. Such a Commission could draw on the extensive experience of government and the Civil Service in Parliament and its conclusions would enjoy cross-party consensus. The Commission should undertake this work alongside current Civil Service reforms, not as an alternative. It should focus on the strategic long-term vision for the Civil Service … The Civil Service does not exist solely to serve the Government of the day, but also future governments. It is right and proper that substantial reforms to the role of the Civil Service should be scrutinised by Parliament. Such a Parliamentary Commission could be established before the end of the year, and report before the end of the current Parliament, so that after the 2015 general election a comprehensive change programme can be implemented.
It was greatly to the credit of the FDA, the senior civil servants trade union, that it welcomed this recommendation.
Further detail is at http://www.civilservant.org.uk/csr2013.pdf .