17 July 2013

The theory behind the Westminster model is of parliamentary democracy, with the Executive led by parliamentarians who have collective responsibility to Parliament. It is supported by a permanent non political civil service. But it appears that the British Government is finding that traditional civil service values do not deliver the effectiveness of government that it wants. It needs less tradition, fewer political neutrality principles, and more commitment to delivering the Government’s policies.

Last week proposals were announced  to change the structure of Ministers’ offices.  A political chief of staff selected by the Minister will appoint special advisers and civil servants, contracted to deliver the Minister’s programme. But that doesn’t resolve what Ministers see as a failure of senior civil servants to respond to their Minister and to drive change through their departments. That requires the more dramatic change that the Prime Minister was about to initiate last week.

In what would be a departure from Westminster conventions the Prime Minister intended removing the Head of the Civil Service. The Independent reported that the Prime Minister was about to dismiss Sir Bob Kerslake. He wants greater competence in running the complex civil service machine than has been shown by the incumbent.  The civil service has achieved fewer than 45% of the targets set for it. It has lost the confidence of the Prime Minister. Its needs to be led by an experienced corporate leader from the private sector.

That of course shouldn’t happen in what has been projected as the Rolls Royce among national public services.  Premature media awareness of the proposal allegedly embarrassed Downing Street. Such direct intervention would be too evident a politicising of the civil service. The Independent reported that the plan had to be denied.

“This story is untrue. The Prime Minister fully supports the work Bob Kerslake is doing as Head of the Civil Service,” they said. So we decided to hold back from publishing the story to check it again. But we were right. The Prime Minister had decided he wanted to remove Sir Bob and told others he was going. But it was far from clear that anyone had spoken to Sir Bob…”

The enactment last week of the State Sector Amendment Bill has the effect of  distinguishing the New Zealand situation from Britain in some aspects, and conversely, making some accountabilities more similar.  The State Services Commissioner now holds the statutory position of Head of the State Services – concurrent with the appointment as Commissioner. But with the new legislation geared to effectiveness, and explicit references to “cohesive delivery” and “transparent accountability”, the Head of the State Services has responsibility for satisfying Government’s expectations.  Chief executives will be accountable if the State Services prove unable to achieve the majority of the Better Public Services goals.  The old tradition of falling on swords may become the new norm.