Political managers - An open letter to David Davis - The powers of persuasion of the Public Accounts Committee could be used more effectively if it looked forward as well as acting in retrospect.
To David Davis, chairman, Public Accounts Committee:
It is unusual for a member of the House of Commons to engage in direct contact with your distinguished committee but you may like to consider an opportunity missed. In 1982, the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, as it was then, invited me to give evidence about the management system I introduced at the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Cabinet Office.
The committee, among its recommendations, concluded 'The Management Information System for Ministers' (MINIS), or its clear equivalent, should be adopted in all departments and, as appropriate, in other public-sector bodies.' The Government responded in September 1982 and agreed 'The Government is working for a general improvement in management and therefore in management informa-tion. The ground they cover should include that covered by MINIS, where they should differ from it only to the extent to which they reflect genuine differences in the roles and responsibilities of departments. The Government expects departments ... to establish management systems which, like MINIS, provide the information needed to make and maintain a proper distribution of resources in order to achieve objectives, in sufficient detail to identify the costs involved in carrying out particular tasks.'
To the best of my knowledge that was it. Certainly, by the time I reached the Cabinet Office and was in a position to investigate the matter myself, the position remained, to put it mildly, patchy. Hence my letter to you.
I realise, of course, that the practice of the Public Accounts Committee is essentially retrospective. The groundwork is undertaken by Sir John Bourn, the comptroller and auditor-general, who casts a beady eye on the public accounts looking for the cock-ups. These are duly reported to your committee, and permanent secretaries, as the accounting officers of the departments concerned, are commanded to attend upon you. No one should doubt the effectiveness of the process. I have seen grown men tremble at the mere prospect of the questioning to which they might be subjected. Senior civil servants live in awe of your summons. But I think this weapon of persuasion is used less effectively than it could be. It is essentially a power of retrospection. You count the corpses and turn over the detritus of public failure. An important responsibility, of course, but how much more effective if your committee also took upon itself the power to look forward.
One of the major management innovations of the 1980s was the establishment of the Audit Commission to draw back the curtain on administration of local government. Comparisons of cost and effectiveness of delivery of services were calculated and published, revealing the most effective standards of management in the well-run authorities and the culpable failures at the other end of the scale. Nothing like this exists in central government.
The motivation of the private sector - and one of its benefits - is to squeeze value out of the system. To maximise value, people responsible for every corner of every operation should be questioned, disciplined targets set and the managers asked to report against them. The motivation of the public sector is quite different. Large parts of it undergo very little effective scrutiny. High-flying civil servants tend to gravitate to areas where political controversy is fiercest and the pressure most intense, where ministers wish or are forced by Parliament or the media to focus. You can gauge the centre of attention by the daily headline. A few long-running crises and little else commands attention.
This cannot be right. It permits opportunities to slip by and cosy backwaters to drift - the people in charge and their responsibilities unquestioned. I am not thinking of fraud or incompetence. I remain today, as I was 30 years ago, convinced of the high standards of public life in this country. No. It is simply the belief that as a country we could perform more effectively if those backwaters felt the splash of the regular rock thrown into their midst.
I think you should invite the permanent secretaries to explain how they know what is going on in their departments. You should insist on detailed answers, setting out their objectives in specific and costed detail, the authority for such activity and the basis for any target set. Where there are no targets, you should question their absence - even suggest your own.
Of course, you won't be popular, but I doubt if that will weigh heavily with you.
The permanent secretaries will be against you. They are only human and perceive themselves to have trouble enough.
The Treasury, oddly enough, will probably be opposed because you might find things are not being well enough done and thus create a demand for more expenditure. Ministers will oppose any change of this sort which might clutter their desks with requests for decisions in fields where countless sleeping dogs lie.
I will be for you. You may not find this a compelling argument.