PASC Conf TURNBULL

SIR ANDREW TURNBULL, HEAD OF THE
HOME CIVIL SERVICE
THE GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE TO
THE WICKS REPORT

May I start by congratulating the five sponsors of this seminar on the double-barrelled nature of the title.  I gave a speech last week in Portugal which some of you may have read or seen reports of, which emphasise that the maintenance of integrity has to go hand in hand with reform and the capacity to deliver.  I said:

"We are in an age where being good, still less looking good is not enough.  We have to be first class at doing good.

There are two reputational risks.  The first is that the service loses its reputation for political impartiality and integrity.  Once lost this would be very difficult to revive.  But there is another, that it loses respect because it is perceived as not sufficiently competent to meet the challenges of the day."

In order that the reform side of the debate does not go by default, let me say a few words about what we are doing.

i. First we are asking each department to establish greater clarity of its strategic purpose, what is its role, what is its central inside, and within that what are its priority objectives.  This may sound obvious but it is not as simple as it looks.  But it needs to be settled because until it is we cannot move on to issues of organisation, funding, people and skills;

ii. Secondly, we need to examine whether departments are fit for purpose:

• Do they have the right engagement with the front line e.g. the NHS, local government, police etc?  Do departments see themselves as leaders of the service for which they are politically responsible rather than just a component of that service dealing with policy or regulation?  Is the landscape of intermediate bodies working effectively?

• Are departments organised around their key objectives? 

• Are departments supported by the right skills, not just in traditional policy areas but all the way through the other professional disciplines as well, e.g. Strategy, Finance, HR, IT, Programme and Project Management, Communications?

• Are these professional skills positioned in the organisation so that they have the influence and authority they require.  My diagnosis is that we need to rebalance departments so that the "horizontal services" supporting the Permanent Secretary is larger relative to the "vertical structures" delivering the policy objectives;

• Are departments identifying the potential of science and technology to further their objectives and exploiting it fully?

• Are departments organised to focus sufficient attention on the eeds of consumers?

iii. Thirdly, we need to revisit a number of people issues:

• The balance between internally developed talent and skills imported in mid career;

• The assumption of a career for life and the way that it is implicitly buttressed by pay and pensions systems;

• The quality of training we give to our leaders of the future;

• The balance between gaining experience at the centre and working at the front line.

iv. Fourthly, we need to get better at delivery, though we have advanced substantially here in the last two or three years.  We need:

• Good methodology and process e.g. well set targets, trajectories, monitoring processes and the ability to intervene when going off track;

• People well trained in developing a delivery plan and in managing it;

• Much stronger programme and project management skills through departments.

v. Finally we need to raise our game on efficiency where the major review which is now in train will, I am confident, identify major opportunities for improvement, particularly in procurement, in reducing the bureaucracy around funding and inspection, and in getting departments to collaborate more on their back office systems and their delivery platforms;

Integrity/Values

Let me now turn to the integrity/values agenda and in particular the Government's response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.  I would set out briefly the Government's thinking in framing its response, but let me start by making it clear that at the most fundamental level there is a substantial measure of agreement.

In publishing the Government's response, the Prime Minister said:

"A strong, politically impartial Civil Service is a great national asset.  In general the relationships between Ministers, special advisors and permanent Civil Servants work extremely well.  But we agree with the Committee that a number of further sensible practical steps can be taken…  which will help us to work together to deliver our ambitious programme of reform."

I would like to divide my remarks into five areas:

• Cabinet Ministers and the Ministerial Code;

• The Civil Service including senior appointments within the Service;

• Special Advisors;

• Government Communications, including the proposed restructuring at the centre;

• The case for a Civil Service Act.

Ministers and Conflicts of Interest

The Government agrees:

a.) On taking up office, Cabinet Ministers should go through a rigorous process of identifying potential conflicts of interest, and should have access to advice on how to deal with them;

b.) We need mechanisms to deal with disputes if they arise.

Let me start with b.).  There is total agreement that having a Permanent Secretary, or worse the Cabinet Secretary, investigate an accusation against a Minister is unsatisfactory and that this should be done by bringing someone independent.  The only disagreement is a practical one, should a panel of investigators be identified in advance, or chosen at the time.  The Prime Minister prefers the latter so that he can relate the person and the process to the nature and seriousness of the issue.  He has however undertaken that anyone selected will be a person of "serious standing".

On a.), the Committee were advised by my predecessor that the Permanent Secretary should be involved in advising on conflicts of interest and the steps needed to be taken to avoid them.  Regrettably the Committee chose to ignore that advice.  It also misquoted me by producing in evidence a statement I had made about Permanent Secretaries not being involved in investigation and deploying it in the passage on advice.  I can only say that excluding Permanent Secretaries from giving advice to Ministers on conflicts of interest is impractical.

The Committee, and the indeed audience at this seminar, may not understand just how much the process of preventing conflicts of interest has developed.  On appointment, and even on promotion within the same department, a Minister is sent what I call a Wilson letter.  This asks them to go their Permanent Secretary, declare their financial and other interests and then to discuss whether there are any conflicts and the options for dealing with them.  There should be an agreed record of the outcome.

The Government has accepted that we should set up an independent advisor who will available to all departments, and hence able to develop a corpus of consistent advice.  It will not be mandatory to consult such an advisor but any Minister whose affairs are more complicated than a London house, a constituency house, a mortgage and two ISA's would be very foolish not to use this facility. 

The Civil Service

The Government's response has attracted some criticism - misplaced in my view - over its approach towards senior appointments within the Civil Service.  Much of this is based on misunderstanding so I am grateful to the Chairman for correcting the mistake in the flyer for this seminar.  It is important to be clear about the Government's position of this.  The Government has no plans to change the requirement that Civil Servants should be appointed on merit through fair and open competition.  No one should be put up for appointment who is not properly qualified to do the job.  As I said earlier, the Government is committed to maintaining a permanent and impartial Civil Service.  It also acknowledges the important role of the Civil Service Commissioners in maintaining these principles. 

What the Government has said is that there is case for examining whether the different types of approach for public appointments and Civil Service open competitions, which can be equally important to the integrity of public life, continue to be justified.  But no action will be taken until there has been discussion with the Civil Service Commissioners.

It is important that the process is not only transparent but that the subsequent appointment has a high chance of success.  There is no point, and the Civil Service Commissioners agree on this, in imposing on a Minister a Permanent Secretary that they do not believe has the right qualities to carry forward the programme they are pursuing.  That may satisfy the needs of a transparent process but it is not designed to make a success of the subsequent relationship.  This is not just a question of personalities, still less political leanings.  Often it will be about a choice between experience within the organisation on the one hand or bringing someone with different skills.

I also have concerns about the all or nothing approach, i.e. where the recommended candidate is rejected, the nuclear option of rejecting a runner-up, no matter how closely he or she ran the preferred candidate.

I am confident that is discussion with the Civil Service Commissioners we can produce a process and understandings behind it which satisfy the requirements of transparency and impartiality while creating the best chance of success for the appointment. 

Special Advisors

When I gave evidence to the Committee I took issue with the title of the inquiry, in particular the reference to boundaries.  I thought, and still think, that this betrayed a negative, half-full view of life.  I would have preferred it to have focused on relationships. 

Rather than emphasising the boundaries between Cabinet Ministers, Civil Servants and Special Advisors I think that our aim should be to recognise the distinct contribution that each can make and to develop good relationships so that we can work closely and effectively together.

Special Advisors are, after all, part of the team within a department.  They work alongside permanent Civil Servants helping to deliver the priorities of the Government and the department in which they work.  That is why, my predecessor argued that Special Advisors should not be a separate category of government service distinct from the Civil Service.

In the Government's response we have set out proposed amendments to the Special Advisors Code of Conduct which, for the first time, clarifies the relationship with permanent officials but also for the first time, sets out some demanding standards which must be observed.

The amendment does not mean that Special Advisors have executive powers over Civil Servants.  It is made very clear that Special Advisors "may, on behalf of their Ministers, convey to officials Ministers views, instructions and work priorities".  Some people have suggested that all communications between Special Advisors and permanent officials should be relayed through Ministers private offices.  My response is:

a.) That this is impractical and;

b.) Would serve to isolate Special Advisors from officials rather than fostering a close working relationship between them.  This would make the breakdown in relations seen in the Jo Moore case more not less likely

The Government does not believe that the contribution of Special Advisors should be treated as a numerical issue.  Rather then setting a limit the right response is to be transparent about numbers and about roles and responsibilities.

Government Communications

The Government has already acted on the interim recommendations of the independent Review of Government Communications chaired by Bob Phillis of the Guardian Media Group.  Its brief is to conduct a "radical review" of government communications - covering a number of issues raised in the Wicks Committee's report.

Over the summer the Prime Minister asked the Group for its interim conclusions on the organisation of communications at the centre.  In response to the Prime Minister's request, the Group's interim report, published on 3 September, makes a number of recommendations, which the Government has accepted in full.

The main recommendations are:-

• A new Permanent Secretary, Government Communications based in the Cabinet Office, with access to the Prime Minister, who will focus on a strategic approach to communications across Government;

• A Prime Minister's senior official spokesman who will be deputy to the Permanent Secretary, Government Communications and lead on the civil service aspects of the Downing Street communications operation;

• A Prime Minister's Director of Communication's, responsible to the Prime Minister, who will lead the political aspects of the Downing Street communications operation;

• The Prime Minister has also accepted the Group's recommendation that henceforth it is not necessary for the Director of Communications to have the executive powers provided in the Civil Service Order in Council.

The Prime Minister has now asked the Group to complete its work in reviewing wider aspects of governments communications, taking into account any recommendations which may emerge from Lord Hutton's Inquiry.

A Civil Service Act

The final theme I wish to touch on is legislation.  The Government accepts the case in principle for a Civil Service Act.  It is an issue on which there is much continuing debate, not least the work that is currently being done by the PASC.  Once the Select Committee's proposals have been published the Government will publish a draft Bill for consultation.

People have criticised the statement that such an Act will have to compete with other legislative priorities.  This is inevitable.  There are many areas directly affecting people's daily lives in health, crime, transport and anti-social behaviour where change can only be brought about by legislation.  The Government will continue to look for ways in which the values underpinning the Civil Service can be advanced without legislation.  A very good example of this is the recommendation which the Government has accepted that the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner should be made after consultation with opposition leaders. In my view this entrenches her position as securely as any legislation.

Conclusion

i. I opened my remarks by quoting the Prime Minister's description of the Civil Service as a "great national asset".  In my view, the Government's response offers the opportunity to reinforce the Service, building on our core values of integrity and impartiality whist equipping us to deal with new challenges.  This is a wide-ranging agenda and I look forward to hearing your views.