Archive for March, 2007

Ministerial Accountability and the Rural Payments Agency

Little noticed over the past two-three years has been a serious failure in public administration.  To hear about it, you had to be awake at 5.45am and listening to Radio Four’s Farming Today programme.  Over a long period, this programme has treated listeners to regular updates on the failure of the Rural Payments Agency to implement the Single Payment Scheme for farmers in England.  The background was a desire to simplify and change the nature of the farm subsidies paid to UK farmers.  However, only English farmers were to be treated to so rapid a change to a new and fundamentally different system.

The details can be read in the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  Suffice it to say that ambitious plans, new and ill-thought through procedures and indaequate IT systems all play their part.  But the culture of saying ‘yes, minister’ is also a problem.  Nobody appears to have been willing to raise concerns in a forceful manner.  Where concerns were identified, these were raised in a muted manner.  At the same time, The Treasury was expecting cost savings to arise from the changes.

This is the same recipe for disaster that seems to affect schemes of this kind and scale: Choild Support; Disability Living Allowance; Passport Agency; NHS IT systems…..  The lists are long and growing.  From a public administration perspective, you can certainly see all the signs of failure emerging at an early stage.  Looking to Hogwood and Gunn’s (1984) ideal of perfect implementation, an ‘implementation deficit’ can be identified in almost all of the ten points.

But the story has appeared after 6.00am only because of the Select Committee report and specifically its criticisms of ministers.  The old problem of accountability has arisen.  Who is to blame?  Was it policy, and therefore ministers?  Or was it an administrative failing, and therefore the responsibility of the Agency’s managers?  The report is damning of all concerned – ministers, Permanent Secretary and agency Chief Executive.  And it is this that has caught the media eye.  Margaret Beckett, then Secretary of State at DEFRA, is now the Foreign Secretary.  She has been promoted despite presiding over such a failure.

The Select Committee report can be read at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmenvfru/107/107i.pdf

The National Audit Office has also reported on the failures: http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/05-06/05061631.pdf

Splitting the Home Office

The Home Office, one of the big politicial appointments, is actually one of the worst departments in Whitehall.  It is notoriously bureaucratic and inflexible.  It is responsible for a vaste range of unconnected policies – things that don’t fit anywhere else.  And things are always going wrong.  It sometimes seems that scarcelty a week goes by without the Home Secretary being criticised.  Escaping prisoners.  Police racism.  Deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants.  Identity cards.  David Blunkett criticsied Jack Straw for failing to get a grip of the department.  John Reid said it wasn’t fit for purpose when he took over from Charles Clarke.

So will the separation of the security and policing side of the Home Office from the judicial and penal side help the situation?  Some argue that it will give a greater clairty to the brief of the Home Secretary and the new Justice Ministry.  However, wherever you draw the lines between functions, there are failues of communication and coordination.  Talk of ‘joined-up government’ in recent years has overlooked the fact that, unless everything is joined up, the creation of new collaborative units and organisations merely defines boundaries along different lines.  And it brings new and, sometimes, unexpected communication difficulties, particularly between professional cultures.

Having said that, poor communication WITHIN the Home Office has been one of the problems of the past.  Separating functions out will not make that any better.  But it might not make it any worse either.  And breaking up and shaking up some of the monolith might generate a change in culture.

What is certain is that John Reid could never credibly be the Minister for Justice – he is much more temperamentally suited to the ‘security’ side of the Home Office.  In that sense, John Reid will be benefit from the change – he will no longer have to listen to the do-gooding liberals in the Probation Service.

Sofa Government

Continuing the debate about styles of government, probity in decision making and the relationship between politican an civil servants, Ken Clarke, the senior Tory politician heading a ‘Democracy Task Force’, has released a report on the theme highlighted in the recent blog about Iraq – sofa government.  It discusses in some depth the issues and puts forward some suggestions for opening up and clairifying the roles and responsibilities of the key actors in decisions at the heart of Whitehall.  Note that Lord Butler contributed to the report, though he is not a signatory to what is a political publication.

Coverage got swallowed up in debates about cash-for-peerages, reform of the House of Lords and the question of financing politival parties.  Once again, the media miss a problem at the heart of government – in a memorable title from the 1990s, the proper conduct of public business.

The Democracy Task Force publication is available at: http://www.conservatives.com/pdf/DTF_Sofa_Government.pdf

The Budget, 2007

If we need proof that the budget is largely about theatre, then yesterday’s performance was that.  It has taken until this morning for the analysis of the content of the budget to filter through the political posturing.  And even now, you have to go to the special newspaper pull out section for the detail.  The main political reports concern: the Brown v Cameron dynamic; the jokes about Stalinism and  references to ‘comrades’; how Cameron was wrong footed by the final announcement of the 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax.   Largely overlooked, the Budget Debate goes on until Tuesday next week.  How much coverage of this will there be in the media?

When thinking about concepts of public accountability, and particularly in its Parliamentary form, it is difficult to do so without also considering the role of the media in scrutinising our political leaders but also in shaping the way they behave.

Lyons Inquiry Report

Earlier this week, stories began to circulate in the press about the content and conclusions of this much delayed, much expanded and long awaited report.  At over 400 pages with further appendices and tables, it is quite a read.  Reportage has focused upon the ‘contentious’ issues of local taxation, even though any changes on this matter have effectively been delayed until after the next election.  However, a significant part of the report is concerned with the role of and constraints placed upon local government.  This is potentially more interesting, certainly to students of public administration.

A further point to note is the way in which stories on the Lyons Inquiry report stopped not long after it was launched at 10am yesterday morning (Wednesday 22nd March).  It became lost in the budget.  Laura McAllister suspects the timing is probably deliberate and it is difficult to argue with that.  If a 406 page report is launched on the day of the budget, nobody will have much time to read it and it will strugle to gain much space on the polticial agenda.  A good day to bury a difficult discussion?

The report can be accessed via: http://www.lyonsinquiry.org/

Building on Progress or on Shifting Sands?

A bit of publicity and a bit of a disappointment.  The launch of another policy review, this time on public services.  The document is full of the usual New Labour platitudes about empowerment (as though that were unproblematic in itself) targets (as though the two do not contradict each other) and additional targeted investments and programmes (with no evidence of having learnt from any of the experiences of the past ten years).  But the language has changed a little.  We now hear about ‘opening up supply’.  This is contracting out by another, apparently more liberal, name.

 

To illustrate the wonders of this document, the following quote will suffice:

‘Services that are designed around the user depend on personalisation.  But there is no point in empowering citizens if their expressed preferences cannot be met – and because different people want different things, a broad base of suppliers is needed.’ (Prime Ministers’ Strategy Unit, 2007, p.44)

These two sentences jump around all over the place, summarising different debates in simplistic ways but, more importantly, associating personalisation with empowerment and, astonishingly, with the question of supply.  Suddenly, contracting out is about citizen empowerment and personalisation.  There are arguments for contracting, but there are many academics who suggest that contracting for services undermines the very basic principles of accountability, let alone empowerment.

 

The policy review, Building on Progress: public services, is available at:

http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/policy_review/documents/building_on_progress.pdf

‘Stalinist’ Brown

An amusing report of an interview with Lord Turnbull in today’s Financial Times (20th March, 2007). Lord Turnbull was the top civil servant at the Treasury under Gordon Brown before becoming the Cabinet Secretary to Tony Blair. So he knows something of Whitehall. But what is amusing about the story is that it appears to be a lot of noise about nothing. Brown is made out to be power obsessed and paranoid. He wants to have influence in all areas of policy. He doesn’t trust political colleagues or, for that matter, the civil service. And he doesn’t want to be associated with any failings or difficult decisions.

So what is new? Since when has the Treasury ever been shy about contributing to a political decision? While I had very little direct contact with them, the Treasury influenced the thinking and decisions making in Whitehall through indirect and direct means when I was there. And as for distrust, there is a long and honourable tradition, perhaps particularly amongst Labour ministers, of distrusting the civil service and/or colleagues. Tony Benn, in his diaries, was for ever commenting on the efforts of the civil service to frustrate him. Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister depict a civil service bent on getting its own way. And how many politicians form an orderly line to take the blame for errors made or for difficult choices?

Or maybe theWhitehall village of ministers and officials, or former ministers and former officials, are having their say in the Labour leadership contest? Another story about Brown’s character and style days before his last budget. Coincidence?