Former UK cabinet secretary backs call to publish civil service policy advice

By on 09/03/2022 | Updated on 09/03/2022
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell

The UK’s policy process is ‘broken’, says former UK education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater – and former civil service chief Gus O’Donnell has backed his proposals for radical change. Matt Ross reports

When Jonathan Slater joined the civil service in 2001, he recalled, staff in “the finance function of government departments weren’t even accountants. The people running the HR functions of government departments were, and I quote, people who were told they ‘weren’t good enough to do anything else’. But that situation has been transformed in the last 20 years.”

Every civil service function is “miles better” these days, he continued – except one. “The only bit of the civil service not to be transformed over the last generation or two is the policy function,” he said. “Red boxes, submissions, [parliamentary questions], the ‘lines to take’… All those sorts of processes that have been operated for the last 50 years are still alive and well.”

In a new report, ‘Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine’, Slater argued forcefully that policymaking must now be overhauled – and points to serious failures during the pandemic. “There has of course been no shortage of very serious operational disconnects, of which testing and PPE are only the most high-profile examples,” he wrote.

And the former permanent secretary of the UK’s Department for Education doesn’t spare his own blushes: the public inquiry “will presumably explore my own department’s record on opening and closing the schools, for example, and on providing support (or not) to those left at home, to say nothing of the exams fiasco,” he writes – referencing the 2020 A-levels grading disaster that led to his own abrupt exit from government. “There was a huge disconnect between the conversation in Whitehall on subjects like who ‘should’ go to school, when and how, and the reality on the ground.”

Policies devised by ‘generalists’ amid high levels of staff churn

This disconnect between Whitehall policy debates and the facts of life in the real world reflect policymakers’ isolation, according to Slater: far from service users and frontline delivery, they focus on political and presentational issues rather than achieving policy goals. Policies are devised by ‘generalists’ with little understanding of their subject matter, while rapid churn in these roles means they never stick around long enough to develop real expertise. To devise genuinely effective policies, Slater called on civil servants to “think of themselves as part of the community, rather than separate from it”.

Indeed, “the way the civil service works culturally is to think of itself as better, in Whitehall, than anybody else,” Slater warned at an online event hosted by King’s College London’s Policy Institute on Tuesday. Outlining his findings and his solutions, he urged senior leaders to get a grip of the problem.

As his report points out, his fellow event panellist Lord O’Donnell – UK cabinet secretary 2005-11 – made big changes during his stint at the top: strengthening collaboration, boosting diversity and introducing behavioural economics into policymaking, for example. “The civil service can change,” said Slater. “It has changed in other areas. So the first solution to churn and to generalists is for the senior civil service to own the problem and tackle it together.”

Officials need more real-world experience

Second, Slater has proposed that all directors general of policy should have spent “serious time in customer-facing delivery”: his report suggested “three years managing something big, like job centres, courts, prisons, local authority departments or their private sector equivalents”. And this made sense to O’Donnell: “I do strongly believe that people should not have the kind of career I had; they should spend some time in an operational job, definitely,” he said, reflecting on his own path into the Cabinet Office via academia and the Treasury, the UK’s finance and economics ministry.

O’Donnell also highlighted, however, the value of such operational skills in the private sector – warning that the most effective staff “get hired away”. He said: “And if we want to hire the best in, we have to pay very high salaries. And then you get some criticism – I should try and be polite about it – saying: ‘You mustn’t pay anyone more than the prime minister,’ which is just crazy.” The civil service pay system is, he added, “completely bonkers… most of the pay comes in the form of pension, when you’ve left. What a great incentive structure that is!”

Read more: Algorithms & accountabilities: an interview with Jonathan Slater, former UK education chief

Putting advice in the public realm

Third, Slater called for civil servants to be made fully accountable for the advice they provide – with policy options documents published for scrutiny, and officials permitted to respond openly to select committee questions instead of representing their minister’s position. “Rather than just a closed conversation inside Whitehall, an open conversation with the public and the frontline would improve the quality of advice so much, and would change our mindset,” he said on Tuesday. “Instead of just looking outwards to what colleagues in Whitehall think, we’d be looking outwards to what the public wants.”

Former Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater. United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recalling the deeply flawed policy that led to his own downfall, Slater writes in his report that it would have been “pretty challenging” to appear before the education select committee and argue the case for the use of an algorithm to decide A-level grades. “But I am sure that the discipline of having to do so would have led to better appraisal of the potential options,” he said.

Other countries already publish policy advice, Slater noted on Tuesday, naming New Zealand – though unlike the practice there, he’d like to see it released before ministerial decisions are made. This is how things operated when he worked in local government, he explained: floating these ideas in a 2021 interview, Slater told GGF that “I’ve seen at first hand the benefits of a system in which advice is given more transparently: it improves the accountability of the person giving it”. There are obvious benefits to publishing before decisions are made: “The most useful feedback is of course that which is offered before something goes wrong, rather than after,” Slater writes.

O’Donnell backed Slater’s proposal. “It really does make sense to do this. And I think that way, we prevent disasters: prevention is better than cure,” he said. “We need to be held accountable for those option appraisals, and the way you do that is make them transparent.”

Fishing in a bigger pool for talent

Fourth, Slater highlights civil service policymakers’ lack of cultural and social diversity as a key weakness – leaving them ill-equipped to understand the needs and interests of the UK’s very different communities. The Social Mobility Commission has found the socio-economic backgrounds of Whitehall officials unchanged over four decades, he pointed out. And former education secretary Justine Greening, the third panellist, argued that monitoring civil servants’ socio-economic diversity annually would provide “the data to understand where we need to make interventions to allow people to flow through and, crucially, up the system”.

The government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ policy includes a pledge to move more senior civil service jobs out of London and the south east of England, with the goal of broadening policymakers’ backgrounds and perspectives. But as Greening pointed out, the levelling up agenda itself reveals the weakness of current policymaking. Its white paper was published in February, three months after the Treasury completed its three-year Spending Review; and of the 24 performance metrics, she said only half appear in the Spending Review outcomes. “So in other words, the government has two sets of KPIs [Key Performance Indicators]. No organisation is going to be successful if you have two distinct sets of KPIs,” she said. “The machine will find it hard to perform at its best if departments are pulled in different directions.”

What’s more, said Greening, “investment in human capital, fundamentally, is classed as a cost” by the Treasury. Success in the 21st century is “all about knowledge and talent”, she added; so spending on education, for example, is a crucial investment in the nation’s future success. But, viewing it as a cost, Treasury always seeks “to minimise it. That is a really basic principle that needs to change”.

Build skills, not structures

Illustrating how the Treasury’s approach undermines sensible decision-making, Greening pointed to new minimum entry requirements for university applicants. These will prevent many young people with difficult backgrounds from getting degrees, “even if it’s university that can help them succeed”, she warned. “The better alternative, apparently, is to allow them to continue down that high-probability track of heading into the justice system, which is way more expensive.”

O’Donnell also called for the Treasury to change its approach. “The chancellor needs to start making some speeches about this,” he said. “I look forward to hearing him say he’s completely committed to the levelling up agenda, and here’s what he’s going to do about it; because at the moment, the rhetoric is very good, but the reality is completely the opposite.”

Most of the money allocated to levelling up is being spent on physical infrastructure, added O’Donnell – a former Treasury permanent secretary – while human and social capital are “massively under-invested-in relative to plans which are more concrete, basically, and I don’t think are going to work”.

Vested interests

It’s easy to see why policymakers and ministers like the current system, Slater wrote in his report. “Neither party is actually held accountable. Civil servants are able to claim that ministers are supposed to be accountable, rather than them, but ministers know that in reality they are unlikely to have to take the blame if things go wrong.”

What’s more, he said on Tuesday – in comments echoing the findings of a recent GGF report on digital leadership – those at the top have benefited from the status quo. People join the public service to “make a difference”, he said, “but actually they’re operating in a system which rewards them for ‘handling’ skills. And if you get to the top accordingly, you’re going to be quite brave to say: ‘This is no good. The system is failing… and we need people that are different from me’.”

However, there are many, many people, both inside and outside the civil service, who want to make that change, Slater concluded. So senior civil servants have “got to own the problem, uncomfortable as that must be”, recognising that “it’s our responsibility that the system prioritises generalists over experts; prioritises churn over staying in post long enough to achieve a difference. We’ve got to own that problem. And we’ve got to put it right”.

Read more: Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?

‘Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine’ is available on the King’s College London website

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. Lee Jones says:

    If MPs are held accountable to the same level as is proposed for public sector workers, then I’m all for this …. Particularly:

    – ‘made fully accountable for the advice they provide’ translating to MPs being fully accountable for the actions they take;

    – ‘policymakers’ lack of cultural and social diversity as a key weakness’ translating into the HoC and HoL not being the closed shop with participants drawn from the limited and often elitist genepool it invariably is.

    If honesty, integrity and accountability are required from public servants, then it *must* also be required from our elected representatives, and perhaps even before it is wrung out of public sector workers.

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