New Permanent Secretary should focus on Wales not Whitehall

Andrew Davies offers some ideas on how the civil service can stop being a drag on the development of devolution in Wales

An important announcement about one of the most powerful jobs in Wales was made last week but attracted very little media attention. The job was Permanent Secretary or Head of the Welsh Government civil service and a vacancy was created when the present incumbent, Dame Gillian Morgan, announced her retirement.

As a long-standing critic of the civil service culture, in Whitehall and Wales, I believe it is a major drag on the development of devolution in Wales. My views on the reforms that are needed are set out in an article in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda. When this was reported in the Western Mail it elicited the following response from a Welsh Government spokesperson:

 “We agree with much of what is expressed in this article which sets out an agenda for change that we are already working towards.”

As the article was a pretty radical critique of the civil service this was a highly revealing comment. It would appear to indicate that Welsh Ministers are unhappy with the current set up and are looking for significant reform and improvement in the performance of the civil service. When I drafted Welsh Labour’s Assembly 2011 election manifesto for First Minister Carwyn Jones, the urgent need for civil service reform was acknowledged and a commitment was made to:

“…review and seek realignment of the governance and performance of the Welsh Government civil service so that it better reflects the developing requirements of devolution whilst remaining part of the Home Civil Service.”

This is not a technical or peripheral issue. Many of the challenges we are facing in Wales in terms of policy and service delivery are due to the systemic weaknesses in the civil service culture. Who becomes Permanent Secretary and their ability to bring about the radical changes that are needed will be crucial to the future success of devolution.

The appointment of a new Permanent Secretary is an opportune moment to examine what needs to be done. A crucial issue will be: will Welsh Ministers want and get someone whose primary responsibility is to the First Minister and Wales – or someone who will look to Whitehall? As it is a senior civil service post no doubt urgent, high-level discussions have been taking place for some time between the First Minister and No 10 Downing Street about this appointment. This is because, unless the rules change, the choice will not be made by First Minister Carwyn Jones but by the UK Civil Service Commission and be approved by the Prime Minister.

Accountability will be key. People in Wales are usually shocked to find out that the Permanent Secretary and Senior Civil Servants are neither accountable to nor appointed by Welsh Ministers. And in responding to my previous article the Welsh Government did highlight the fact that:

“…with regards the accountability of Senior Civil Servants, work is already underway to meet (its) Programme for Government commitment.”

It will be interesting to see to what extent Welsh Ministers are involved in the appointment of a new Permanent Secretary, and whether their views and the priorities of the Welsh Government will be taken into account.

But it isn’t just accountability that is key. Long-standing and deep-seated flaws have been identified in the civil service culture over many years that I believe have held back both policy-making and service delivery in Wales and the UK. Numerous reviews of its performance, many by the UK civil service itself, have found the following:

  • Weak executive capacity, with poor leadership and management, where the priority is on policy-making not leadership skills.
  • Weak reflective capacity and poor long-term thinking.
  • Poor co-ordination and disjointed government, with little evidence of joint working between departments.
  • Poor management of knowledge and organisational memory, which undermined learning and innovation.
  • An inward-looking culture with poor engagement with external stakeholders.
  • An obsession with process and compliance, not outcomes and delivery.

These weaknesses need addressing. Nothing less than a radical change in the culture of the civil service is required. This will be a long-term project. The role of the civil servant will need to change from being gate-keepers, of information and access to Ministers, to facilitators, where their role will be to lead outside partners in terms of both policy-making and service delivery.

At the moment there is little capacity and resource dedicated to long-term strategic thinking and planning at the heart of the civil service in the Welsh Government. In order to deal effectively with some of the economic and social challenges facing Wales, including globalisation, climate change, a rapidly ageing society, and increased demands on public services at a time of decreased public expenditure, there needs to be the ability to co-ordinate long-term policy-making and service delivery. Setting up that capacity at the heart of the government, as happens with the UK Government, would be an indication that the new Permanent Secretary recognises the imperative.

As the First Minister has emphasised, the watchword in the Programme for Government must be delivery – of clear policy objectives and public services – not on administrative process and compliance. For many civil servants, holding a meeting and announcing a policy or strategy initiatives and action plans are seen as outcomes in themselves. They are the start of the process not the end, and the culture needs changing.

The record of performance management within Welsh Government has been poor. A priority should be to establish a unified performance management system where financial management and performance management are brought together, unlike at present where they are separate and unrelated. The concept of opportunity cost is not widely recognised or understood in the public sector. There is also an obsession in the civil service with monitoring the expenditure of money, not in measuring its effectiveness or value for money. A priority should be establishing a system which measures effectiveness of expenditure against the delivery of clearly identified strategic policy outcomes.

The civil service is also over-managed as well as micro-managed. As a recent Assembly committee discovered, the large number of officials with managerial titles is significantly out of proportion to the size of the organisation and needs significant reduction and stream-lining.

Another urgent and related question to be addressed is whether the re-organisation of the senior civil service carried out by the present Permanent Secretary with the introduction in 2009 of seven Director Generals has improved the management and performance of the Welsh Government. The fact that only one out of the seven Director Generals is still in their original post barely three years later would indicate that either the original selection was faulty or that the experiment has failed, or both. Certainly, there is little evidence that performance has improved or the long-standing weaknesses of the civil service been addressed.

So what type of person is needed? Clearly someone who understands Wales and our distinctive Welsh public service ethos and who is also primarily committed to Wales and not Whitehall. But commitment and accountability will not in themselves be enough. We need a person with exceptional leadership and management ability, with a strong track record of effective leadership, management and delivery within a large complex organisation – and someone who is also externally focused and committed to working in partnership with others in public services, the voluntary and private sectors.

While the Welsh Government civil service is a large and complex organization it is not unique. With about 5,000 employees it is not much different in size from many local authorities in Wales. Above all, we need someone to lead the Welsh Public Service as a whole in confronting the major challenges facing us in Wales. Spending the bulk of their time in meetings about internal Welsh Government processes in Cathays Park must be a thing of the past.

Professor Andrew Davies, a former Finance and Economic Development Minister in the Welsh Government, is now a strategic adviser to the Vice Chancellor of Swansea University

One thought on “New Permanent Secretary should focus on Wales not Whitehall

  1. A timely and appropriate contribution from the former Minister. He comments the Administration has invited the electorate to judge it at the next election on its record of delivery. A necessary although not sufficient condition for effective execution is the availability of accurate and comprehensive performance data. Yet as we know from the announcement accompanying the launch of the Welsh Infrastructure Investment Plan, devolved Welsh government has been conducted for over a decade in the absence of an appropriate capital budgeting system.

    We may speculate this is partially explained by the former First Minister’s preferences for the management of public spending and specifically a suspicion of the centralising tendencies of a strong finance ministry. Nonetheless Andrew Davies is correct to identify the non-existence of systems which enable both the political and executive branches to draw judgements about the effectiveness of expenditure as a symptom of deeper flaws in the machinery of government.

    Clearly there are many issues that require fixing. A new permanent secretary possessed with a sense of urgency supported by a record of management that indicates a willingness to avoid being saddled by tired nostrums would be a good starting point.

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