21 June 2013

The UK civil service may be adapting some New Zealand public service structures to improve accountability arrangements, but leadership failings in Britain identified by the National Audit Office are unlikely to find ready solutions in New Zealand governance practices.

The NAO considers that Ministers are not getting the “skilled, unified, open and accountable” service they expect. It has found that “there are significant skills shortages, particularly in the areas of commerce, project management, digital delivery and change leadership….” Only four out of 15 Permanent Secretaries at major delivery departments had significant operational delivery and commercial experience. The story behind the report is not comforting reading.

It implicitly criticises the heads of the civil service over the last 20 years of making what a Guardian Professional Leaders’ article calls “some pretty duff decisions” which may help to explain the NAO’s repeated findings of ineffectiveness and inefficiency.  Many civil servants apparently have similar views about their leaders. The report incorporates annual effectiveness survey statistics for the period 2009 -2012.  Although the most recent survey has the best ratings, only 39% have confidence in decisions made by senior managers and only 29% consider change in their department to be well managed.

Perhaps the Guardian article expresses the reality of the NAO report. It suggests some of the most obvious reasons for serial underperformance in civil service management, cultural deformation and the persistence of unskilled generalism at the top of Whitehall can be found with the influence of Ministers, parliamentary positioning and “the messy interaction between political necessity and administrative logic”.

“The senior civil service isn’t some hulking reactionary beast fighting off Ministers avid to cleanse and modernise. Roles are shaped and maintained – especially those around policy and political management – because they are what Ministers want. Departmentalism …  a source of cost and inefficiency, isn’t a bureaucratic trick: it results from political ambition and the democratic necessity of checking and balancing Prime Ministers and Chancellors.”

“And what the NAO can never speak about, because convention forbids any mention of ideology or political values, is the effect on the system of Ministers’ prejudices and partisan commitments. Morale at the top of Whitehall is low .. because the Cameron government not only wants to shrink the state, but publicly despises much of what civil servants hold dear.”

There is no comment by the NAO about the contribution of Ministers. The Guardian article notes that “unless and until we look at Ministers, their practices and ideologies, we are potentially left blaming the senior civil service for doing what the political system requires of it.”