Next Steps backwards?

Posted on: November 24th, 2014

Mention the ‘civil service’ and most people immediately think of the Whitehall stereotypes. Perhaps not bowler hatted Sir Humphreys but pretty close: probably something to do with working with Ministers.
The reality of course is that the overwhelming majority of the 400,000 or so civil servants are working in Jobcentres and tax offices, prisons and passport offices. They are delivering a wide range of public services and never go near Whitehall or Ministers. The proportion who work in and around Whitehall with some occasional Ministerial contact is probably less than 20,000 or 5%.
What is the best way of organising and running the services provided by these 380,000 civil servants outside Whitehall? It may be that the best answer is to put them under the control of the top Whitehall civil servants who are very good at advising Ministers, but rarely have experience of large scale delivery of services to customers. But on the face of it that is pretty implausible.
The team of efficiency advisers under Sir Robin Ibbs who advised Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s came up with a different approach. These executive functions of government they argued should be formed into sensible units or agencies which could be run more along business lines. They needed clear objectives and performance measures and managers who understood how to deliver quality services efficiently. And they needed enough day to day freedom to focus on their customers.
The ‘Next Steps’ White Paper in 1989 started a reform which within 10 years had moved over half the civil service into agencies. Familiar brands including Jobcentre Plus with around 90,000 staff, the Passport Office, the Child Support Agency, and the Pension Service all adopted this model.
Most assessments, including a 2002 Cabinet Office review that I jointly chaired, concluded that the agency model was working well. It gave these activities a clear business focus; made their activities more transparent and accountable through their own accounts and annual reports; and was generally thought to have improved efficiency. The Labour Government embraced this key reform which had been initiated under Mrs Thatcher.
It is ironic then that the current Conservative-led coalition is now dismantling this reform. Jobcentre Plus and the Pension service have gone, although the branding is still used. The Border Agency was closed in 2013 and in October 2014 the Passport Office was integrated into the Home Office which now has no agencies.
Why the change in stance? And why has a government allegedly committed to bringing more business disciplines into the public sector apparently drawn back from this business- inspired model?
This seems to be driven in some cases by a view that greater efficiency can be achieved by cutting out the overheads associated with agencies, each of which would have their own corporate functions perhaps duplicating those in the core department. There is a lot of sense in looking hard at these costs but there are ways of sharing these services without tearing up the agency concept.
In other cases it is about accountability. It’s a natural instinct for a Minister to feel “if I’m going to be blamed when something goes wrong [in issuing passports for example] then I need to bring this more under my direct control”. But a bit of reflection should convince that this is an instinct which should be resisted.
The doctrine that Ministers should be held personally responsible for every failure in a department, however distant and minor, has never made much sense in theory or practice. Departments are administrations which work within a political context and direction set by Ministers. It is reasonable to hold officials rather than Ministers accountable for failures in administration. Ministers should look for assurance that the right people and systems are in place but should not feel they need hands-on control. The more control they assert, the more they will attract blame for failures.
There are also perhaps misunderstandings about the nature of accountability for agencies. Agencies are simply units of the civil service. They remain accountable to Ministers through heads of department just like any other civil servants. They have no statutory foundation separate to that of the Department. So if Ministers are unhappy with what an agency is doing they can challenge in exactly the same way as for any other part of the department.
In these respects agencies are different to non departmental public bodies (NDPBs) which often have a statutory foundation if they have executive functions and generally do not employ civil servants.
The great advantage of the agency model is that it is clear who is in charge of this administrative activity – the Chief Executive – and hence managerial accountability is strengthened without changing the political accountability.
Sadly, Robin Ibbs died in July this year. It would be a great shame if his vision of efficient customer facing management of public services dies too.

Adam Sharples
November 2014