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I find myself unimpressed by a new Whitehall guide to better policy making….

During my brief undistinguished time in Government one of my trademarks was making politically unfeasible suggestions. On one occasion I wrote the PM a long note about how we should reduce the number of ministers or at least give them time-limited measurable tasks rather than let them wander around departments trying to find something interesting to do. Given that handing out ministerial portfolios is a key aspect of Downing Street patronage, the only impact of my suggestion was to further undermine my already tenuous credibility.

In a similar vein I argued passionately, and with absolutely no success, that the capability reviews of Government departments, which began in Labour’s third term, should not just explore the work of civil servants but also what seemed to me to be often the most dysfunctional aspect of Whitehall – the interface between ministers and special advisors, on the one hand, and senior civil servants on the other. I remember the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell responding to the suggestion that we scrutinise this aspect of departments with the mixture of politeness and disdain you might reserve for the man on the bus who confides in you his ability to control the weather with his feet.

In the age of leaks one top secret document that hasn’t, as far as I know, surfaced is the assessment made by Permanent Secretaries of the qualities of their Secretaries of State. Although this assessment is available to the Prime Minister, it is in everyone’s interests to keep it under wraps; not least those of the PM himself, who generally wants to make ministerial appointments on the basis of political considerations and not have his judgement clouded with irrelevancies like merit or ability.

I was once informally told how Labour cabinet ministers fared and it was interesting to see the almost total absence of correlation between political star status and those who – according to the PermSecs - were any good at their job. I can’t help thinking the quality of Government might be improved if after a decent time interval – say three years - these judgements were published.

Broadly speaking civil servants look for a short list of qualities in their political masters. In no particular order these include:

  • A clear, consistent and coherent medium term plan which can be understood at all levels and provides a basis for policy officials to develop a sense of what is, and is not, likely to be well received.
  • A reasonable and consistently applied distinction between political and strategic issues (where the ministers lead) and operational ones on which they don’t, unless there is good evidence of failure or a risk of it.
  • Resilience and a willingness to take responsibility in the face of problems and attacks, including a resistance to acting in haste.
  • Tending to trust officials and having a good instinct for where advice should be questioned and where it should be accepted.
  • Respecting process and being courteous and demanding the same from the rest of the political team.
  • I am willing to bet that on a three point scale the Secretaries of State who score more than ten out of fifteen are in the minority.

    All of which goes toward explaining why I found the recent report ‘Twelve actions to professionalise policy making‘, produced by the Whitehall Policy Profession Board, deeply underwhelming.

    Once again the political interface is deemed too hot to touch and so, once again, the whole approach is of limited value and highly artificial. I say this despite the fact that I am quoted (although not named) in the report *.

    The Coalition deserves praise for some important improvements in the way Government works. Fixed term Parliaments are a big step forward (imagine the blight now on Government if we were constantly discussing whether David Cameron might call a spring election next year). There have also been some important innovations in evidence gathering – such as the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the ‘What Works Centres’. The very limited number of ministerial changes of office is also a boon, especially after the appaling turnover rate under Labour.

    But still, the fiction persists that we can substantially improve policy making without discussing the performance of ministers and the interface between them and civil servants. As long as it does, the promise to improve the quality of policy making in Whitehall will ring hollow.

    *My quote: ‘Designers assume that a problem needs to be redefined, you need to really understand what the nature of the problem is, you need to take it apart…they will spend time talking to employees, customers and clients….if there’s one set of skills Departments lack it’s not policy making, it’s design)

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