16 January 2013

The attitudes of Ministers and senior civil servants were explored yesterday at the second meeting of the House of Commons Public Administrations Committee on the future of the civil service. Four expert witnesses were examined on the increasingly public collapse in the mutually supportive role of Minister and departmental heads. The breakdown in relationships is illustrated by major articles in the Times, Independent, Telegraph and the Guardian yesterday and today, with headlines like “No, Minister: Whitehall in ‘worst’ crisis”, “Ministers attack civil servants to deflect blame from Coalition”, and “Yes Minister is essential training for Government”.

The witnesses were forthright in their comments, including observations about leadership, the churn in senior officials, the numerous years needed for Departmental heads to become competent in their tasks and for culture change to be achieved within agencies, the poor skills of Ministers, the confusing processes of appointing departmental heads, the doubtful contribution of executive boards, and the inadequacy of accountability arrangements.

Governance in the UK public sector is not in a happy place if the evidence given to the Committee is accurate. The 90 minute video record of the Committee is an eye-opener from a New Zealand public servant’s perspective.