15 November 2012

Rt Hon Francis Maude, the UK Cabinet Office Minister, spoke yesterday to the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies in Wellington.  Meanwhile the Prince of Wales and Camilla, also visiting New Zealand, were on a waterfront stroll to meet Wellingtonians.

Mr Maude showed an enthusiasm and commitment to the reform of government services in Britain although I suspect he will have made few converts to his philosophy. The audience was flattered that he should look to New Zealand structures for a key to achieving “more for less”, to  “pilfer (New Zealand practices) for the greater good” but was unlikely to be convinced that he would deliver on both his “real cash savings” and “big society transformation”.

Mr Maude explained the aspiration for mutual and social enterprise models. Staff became engaged and motivated by change and innovation. By encouraging forms of mutual ownership and social enterprise, workers in the public sector would be able to take control over their work, the way that their organisation is run and how its services are delivered. He saw these forms as the way of delivering local services adapted to local needs. He used health, housing and education illustrations of how structures that empowered public servants to reshape their workplace result in better services for the community.

He indicated that IT is an important facilitator of change. Transparency is not a soft option – and the enthusiasm in Opposition for openness changes after a year in Government – but Open Government was integral to digital transformation. However the “treacle” must be removed from online systems if agencies are to create the “irresistible services” which will bring savings to government.

Mr Maude seemed proud of substantial and ongoing reductions in public sector spending in Britain. Capability and leadership were still necessary.  That motivated measures to improve the accountability of departmental heads to their Ministers.  In responding to current challenges, the Government needed to be brave and decisive. And once made, Ministers’ decisions needed to be implemented.  Departmental heads must not only act with pride, passion, pace and professionalism, but must be accountable for that implementation.  Mr Maude said that officials who are honest, have integrity, are impartial and act objectively are of little use if they sit in a room and do nothing – which of course reflects a simplistic meaning of honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity!

That may explain the resignation soon after Mr Maude became Minister, of the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office.  His view was that “the independence of our Civil Service is something to be cherished and something that the rest of the world admires … There … is not much wrong with the Civil Service. It’s a great organisation led by really good people that the private sector would give its right arm to have…” Becoming a house-husband when his wife was appointed vicar in a Manchester parish took priority over supporting Mr Maude with his reform of the civil service.

Yesterday’s knowledgeable audience was probably not impressed by Mr Maude’s unconvincing response when challenged to explain the outcomes that would flow from the effectiveness to which he repeatedly referred. The suggestion was that his focus was really still on efficiency, of better delivery of services, not on delivering a better community through those services.  

The effectiveness driver across the New Zealand State Services is a concentration on outcomes produced by better public services, on results that produce improvements in the lives of New Zealanders.

The Guardian today carries the report of an “exclusive” interview with Mr Maude.  Responding to criticisms about the growing fragility in the Civil Service, Mr Maude observed that cultural, not structural reform of Whitehall is needed. “We are building up strong networks, and we need to build up a common culture and a common ethos …There are things to be done, but this is about behaviour and culture. This is chemistry, not physics…”

In his IGPS presentation yesterday he spoke of the reforms being about “chemistry and biology, not engineering and structure.”