How to run a country

5 June 2014

Reform today launched the research programme “How to run a country”, which is aimed at generating ideas for comprehensive reform of public governance. With fiscal consolidation set to define the near future, it is imperative that the machinery of government ensures effective and transparent spending policies that deliver better services for the public.

When it comes to reform of public governance structures, there is a pattern in British politics that has seen successive governments realising too late the scale of the challenge facing them. At Reform we believe that a key part of the problem is the failure to think about our system of government as a whole, including the role played by parliament, by ministers themselves and by other political actors, including those in local government and devolved administrations. This needs to change if the country is to get past the immediate challenges of fiscal consolidation and begin to implement the vital structural reforms needed to respond to demographic change and persistently low productivity.

The Hon Bernard Jenkin, Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee today led the discussion in the first of a series of private roundtables on the performance of Government in meeting the fiscal challenge, and lessons to be drawn for public governance reform. The roundtable included parliamentarians, former and current civil servants and representatives of civil society.

Today’s discussion reflected the need to think about reform of the system of government as a whole with a suggestion that we need to reinvent public governance for the future. There was wide agreement on the need to focus on the executive as a whole, not just the Civil Service, as well as the relationship between the executive and parliament. Future-proof public governance needs to embed long-term thinking, and sustainability of public finances as well as public services. Concerns were raised that public services are not currently delivering the social outcomes, we need to achieve, and that the executive branch of government does not contain the skills, nor culture, to rethink public service delivery accordingly.

The Civil Service was praised for steering the UK through an economic crisis; whilst the Government was credited for the stability in Cabinet and launching reform initiatives such as the Major Projects Authority and Efficiency and Reform Group, which are having real, positive impact on the executive.

Nevertheless, a number of issues, which inhibit reform, were raised. Firstly, there are issues around the culture within the executive. This revolves around attitudes, behaviours, willingness to accept and learn from failure, and, consequently, relationships. More generally, it was suggested that there is an underlying resilience towards change in the Civil Service, which itself has within its remit to change, but nevertheless does not do so. When change occurs, the tendency is to revert to form.

Secondly, there is a question around skills of both ministers and civil servants. The discussion touched upon the performance of ministers, noting that there are divergent notions of the role ministers should play in departments, and therefore a lack of clarity around the necessary skill set. Moreover, it was suggested that the Civil Service favours a certain skill set resulting in ministers and the Senior Civil Service (SCS) being of too similar a mind-set: policy- oriented and, correspondingly, short-termist. This combines with unawareness of the differences between strategy and policy and, consequently, a deficit of strategic management. Indeed, it was noted that among civil servants there is concern about the capabilities of the SCS. Moreover, while delivery skills are prevalent within the Civil Service, the competence is not sufficiently valued, thus, those possessing them do not reach the SCS.

Latterly, there are issues around staffing and recruitment; the frequent shuffling between positions – with, for instance, current Permanent Secretaries now generally having been in post for shorter periods than their Cabinet ministers; and lack of external recruitment at mid- and senior-career levels.

Public governance in the UK is – in a comparative perspective – highly centralised. The discussion raised the issue as to whether a solution to these problems may be through devolution. There was general agreement that local authorities perform efficiently, particularly on medium term financial planning. This likely reflects a higher degree of budgetary discretion: when it is your own money, you take greater care of it. There were suggestions that the Treasury does not trust, and parliament may not accept, central government departments with such discretion.

There is wide agreement that the current system is not supporting fiscal sustainability and long-term thinking. The answer to many of the underlying issues may lie in improving trust and accountability as well as leadership not only within the executive – between ministers and civil servants – but between the executive and the legislature. The risk to reform lies in negative projections; we must build on the positive elements of the system we have. Relationships are at the heart, and going forward towards reform, it is necessary that all parties attempt to understand each other’s perspectives.

A blog by Camilla Hagelund, Senior Researcher at Reform, on the launch of Reform’s research programme “How to run a country” at a roundtable seminar on the theme “Delivering fiscal responsibiltiy: performance across Government” led by the Hon Bernard Jenkin MP, Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.

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