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Annie Hayes

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No price for failure at Whitehall

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Top civil servants feel they are not held accountable for poor performance and that Parliamentary scrutiny of them is ineffective, according to new research published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr).

Researchers were given unprecedented access to ten permanent secretaries and eight ministers in a year-long programme.

A survey of senior civil servants obtained by ippr following a Freedom of Information request paints a damning picture of frustration with performance management in Whitehall.

Asked whether poor performance is dealt with effectively in their own department, only officials in the Treasury scored more than one in four (with 32 per cent). The worst departments, where less than one in ten believe poor performance is dealt with effectively, were:

  • Department for Transport (5 per cent.)

  • Home Office (6 per cent.)

  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (9 per cent.)

  • Department for Communities and Local Government (9 per cent.)

  • Ministry of Defence (9 per cent.)

  • Department of Trade and Industry (10 per cent.)

  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office (10 per cent.)

One minister told ippr’s researchers: “I was regularly frustrated by the lack of expertise in the department. People complain that we spend too much on outside consultants and others, but often we don’t have a choice.”

Another Minister told ippr: “The most fundamental problem with the civil service is that it is not accountable to anybody. It is certainly not accountable to ministers. [The lack of accountability] explains why the pace of change in Whitehall is best described as glacial.”

But ippr’s research suggests that some civil servants would welcome better internal performance management and more effective external accountability. One Permanent Secretary told ippr researchers: “We should be externally assessed… the truth is that if [external scrutiny] is good enough for Doncaster council then it’s good enough for the Home Office.”

Commenting on the current internal accountability mechanisms, one senior civil servant said: “Why is Whitehall poor at delivery? Because there aren’t any rewards or sanctions in place for civil service delivery.”

Another added: “The single biggest challenge in Whitehall is getting things done! It is great in emergencies but on the day-to-day stuff is it amazing what tactics you have to resort to, to get things done, especially if you want to take on conventional thinking. There is an inherent and institutional resistance to serious change.”

The research also reveals the frustration of Ministers. One told ippr: “The most staggering thing about Whitehall is the complete lack of accountability.

“I would like to write a report evaluating what has gone wrong with the spate of disastrous civil service-led IT procurement programmes. I would include an appendix listing all those officials who have been sacked as a result of these failures. It would be a blank page!”

Another Minister commented: “There is simply no price for failure in Whitehall. No price whatsoever. It is this anomaly that really makes the civil service stand out in comparison to the rest of the public sector.”

But there is a suspicion among civil servants that the lack of accountability suits both sides.

One senior civil servant said: “The ‘accountability fudge’ we have now protects ministers and officials. Ministers can say ‘not me guv’ while officials hide behind the minister. This is not in the interest of effective delivery. This is not in the interest of effective government.”

The ippr report recommends appointing a civil service head who would appoint and line-manage permanent secretaries. They would have the power to reward high performers and remove under-performers, in the same way as the private sector and in front line public services.

They would also be responsible for strategic management of core corporate functions and services, like human resources, knowledge management, information and communication technology, and financial management.

Ministers would have a veto over appointments and would continue to have the power to set policy.

Nick Pearce, ippr Director said: “There is no price for failure in Whitehall. Strong public services depend on high quality civil servants in high performing departments.

“There are plenty of hardworking, even heroic civil servants but what we need now is systemic reform.

“Lines of accountability in Whitehall are ill-defined and too often responsibility falls between the cracks. Politicians and civil servants duck and dive behind each other and no one takes clear responsibility for driving improvement.

“Failure goes unpunished and success unrewarded. The civil service will never achieve consistently high performance without external accountability and effective performance management.”

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Annie Hayes

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