Accountability of the Civil Service to the Political Committees

Thank you Monsieur Le Baillie,

Many months have passed since an evening that I spent frantically trying to write my first Requête on a topic that to many may seem introspective. Having discussed the basics and sounded out the support of a few individuals, my first requête was written and signed.

Whilst time has worked away at some of that passion the centrality of the requête stands as a statement of what I believe to be a due solution to a problem inherent in our system of government, one that is approached, tackled, discussed and resolved upon for a brief period of time before we embark on the whole process again. Due to the uniqueness of the consensus model that we have, the question over who makes the decisions has pestered many, but few have been willing to propose changes directly to the bureaucracy that serves the government.

This bureaucracy, due to a lack of party politics and the consensus model, has within its grasp a greater degree of authority than would be accepted in most other jurisdictions. We do not have a system where political initiatives are worked upon and refined within a party machine. The best access that we have to think tanks is only when looking at the work done in neighbouring countries. Some of this gives us the basis of ideas for refinement, but none speak directly to our unique situation. That is a role that we have too frequently entrusted to the civil service, which should be there for the benefit of the government, not for the shaping of it.

It’s interesting that a paltry three page requête has gathered a response of fifteen pages. Not all of it complementary. But it speaks if nothing else of the controversy and unease that we so frequently feel in our relationship with the civil service.

I suppose it also speaks clearly of a certain committee’s love of bureaucracy with a six page response to a three page requête.

As detailed in the requête, the idea of a meritocratic civil service was introduced to the UK through the Northcote Trevelyan Report. Many have since discussed the benefits of the report and have held it in sufficient regard as to proselytise the UK’s system of civil service. The response to the requête from the State’s Review Committee, in its penultimate paragraph, makes reference to the benefits of such a system. But the Northcote Trevelyan Report is fully compatible with the appointment of civil servants by the political class and this was a practice that persisted long after its adoption. The Northcote Trevelyan Report was written in 1854, adopted in 1870 but the practice of ministers appointing their Permanent Secretaries persisted until 1938.

Indeed in 1941 Sir William Beveridge complained bitterly of this change stating

“The Minister’s function, in war as in peace, is first and foremost that of finding the right men and giving them responsibility”

Despite this apparent change, political appointments of permanent secretaries happen, though not in a formalised manner. The UK have sought to resolve this position by commissioning a report on this area of employment. Its finding was unsurprising in suggesting the executive take on the responsibility of appointing permanent secretaries. It’s also unsurprising that this is bitterly contested by the civil service, what mandarin would want to lose the ability to hire and fire.

The other near neighbour of course has a very different civil service, one that was reformed by one of my historic heroes. Napoleon was confronted by a civil service, wholly appointed through the ancien regime, whose patronage was central to that regime. The reforms that he oversaw created various councils, the most remarkable being the council of state that celebrated its bicentenary in 1999 and is still going strong. Due to the centrality of patronage and the mistrust of judges, senior positions were appointed directly by him and this persists to this day, with the President of the Republic appointing senior civil servants.

Unsurprisingly, the propositions in this requête would give us a system that is a halfway house between the two larger neighbours.

The Guernsey system of civil service was historically born of the right to raise fees on the harbour and retain them on the island. I doubt that we’ll ever return to expenditure that could be contained to taxes raised on the harbour. Unsurprisingly, the government and its bureaucracy has grown ever since and some of it unchecked.

I have little need to explain our current system of government and I look forward to the States Review Committee’s deliberations. So why propose a change now? I firmly believe that the current bureaucracy has slowly but surely drifted further from the system of government, so much so that we’re in danger of the tail wagging the dog. In a system of government that has no noticeable executive, the bureaucracy has stepped in to fill the perceived void. This has created an uncertainty of Chief Officer’s reporting line and the diverging demands from the department’s political members and the Chief executive to name only two examples of the current ambiguity and discomfort.

Let us all be clear on what a Chief Officer can and can’t do should the requête receive your blessing today. No Department, No Chief Officer, No Committee should openly defy the will of this assembly, doing so is an open invitation to a vote of no confidence. Opting in or out of corporate initiatives is no more likely if the Chief Officer is appointed and line managed by the political members than by the current system. If a department objects to a corporate initiative, it is by its very nature not corporate but if this assembly directs the department to do so, there is a simple choice, of undertaking the work or resignation. I do not see how the proposals in the requête changes this and am baffled by the Treasury and Resources Department’s statement as such in their response. No doubt the Minister will want to elucidate how he feels such a blatant defiance of the will of this assembly could persist?

This response however is measured in the extreme when compared with the response from the Policy Council. I remember, as a child, enjoying the story of chicken little. For those of you unaware of the story, chicken little is awoken by an acorn that fell on his head, believing the sky is falling down he works sufficient frenzy into his fellow farmyard council members, goosey loosey, turkey lurkey et al that the sky is indeed falling on their heads. Chicken little’s reaction was moderate compared to the response of the policy council, I believe in years to come, the Policy Council’s response will be used as an example of shroud waving par excellence.

It also speaks of Ostrich type behaviour. In the wake of the implementation of SAP, the Policy Council don’t even support the proposal of proper Service Level Agreements between departments. I’m not sure that even the Policy Council can now support that position as we’re finally seeing an acceptance of the erroneous implementation of SAP. But at what point did the Policy Council think it necessary to have strong Service Level Agreements with our partner organisations, but no need between government departments. Blame festers within various departments and resentment as to declining services grows daily.

The implementation was rushed through on what was a corporate initiative without proper checks and balances. Concerns raised by Chief Officers and those working for them were dismissed in favour of the corporate initiative. The balance has been lost.

The response also talks a lot of unsubstantiated bluster. One line statements such as “raise a number of significant legal issues”, or “have major cost and resource implications” and “Departments could turn away from the overall objectives of government”. On what evidence? There is none. No evidence presented to substantiate these claims. It is unsurprising that a statement written by the very people who’s authority the requête seeks to curtail would react so forcefully, but it is surprising that it is so devoid of evidence to support its spurious claims.

Needless to say, the Policy Council’s response is ill considered and needs amending, in the same way as most of their recent reports.

I’d like to thank Her Majesty’s Comptroller for her time in a meeting that we had to discuss the requête and those fears attributed to her in the Policy Council’s Response. Having discussed matters it became clear that departments may need to be reminded of the sovereignty of this assembly, authority to line manage Chief Officers is not an authority to damage States Objectives, we must all abide by the will of this assembly. Those of us who voted against the FTP must work to deliver on the savings, those who voted against the States Strategic Plan must work within its confines.

The Policy Council also make reference to the implications on the code of conduct for members of the states. It’s interesting how rules are clung to at member’s convenience, they of course, can be amended, I would expect the current Policy Council to know this better than most. Regardless of this oddity the premise is once again erroneous. New Zealand operate a government where civil servants are appointed by ministers, but its values incorporate impartiality, and this is not a lone example.

Most of the rest of the Policy Council’s response can be rebuffed with the simple response, read the requête again, but this time with care. It clearly states that Chief Officer’s must operate within the rules of the States of Guernsey. Chief Officers, as is incumbent on us all, must abide by the resolutions of this assembly.

Could I also suggest that the morning of the debate is a little on the late side to start a PR initiative on behalf of the ELT.

The report by the UK cabinet office that I mentioned earlier was met by reservations from the UK civil service. The Cabinet Office Minister’s response was as follows:

“What else needs to change? There is too often a bias to inertia. There is little incentive to try new things. Any change is endlessly scrutinised and analysed for risk and benefit, while there’s little downside to presiding over an inefficient status quo. Too often people feel ‘if I try and change it, and it goes wrong, it can wreck my career’.

This bias to inertia, against innovation, is hugely frustrating for those who do want change. They can become hugely disillusioned.

Good ministers want bright knowledgeable officials who will give the most brutally candid advice. Who will in that slightly annoying phrase “speak truth unto power”.

Before any individual takes sufficient offence as to my quote of a conservative minister to go running off to the Labour Party Conference, the report received the broad support of all parties.

If the UK, whose ministerial and party system gives far less authority to civil servants, seek to regain authority, why do we think our position different? Authority should rest here, amongst us as forty seven elected and accountable members of this assembly.

And in some measures we already undertake some of the requête’s proposals, but in an unstructured and sporadic manner. SACC in its pursuit of a Principle Officer were left to their own devices by the lack of interest from the ELT. But the deputies that made the appointment now have no authority to line manage and performance manage that individual. T&R had a restructure following the resignation of that department’s Chief Officer. And I must register my surprise as to a particular meeting of HSSD where I was advised that the Chief Officer had departed.

In what way can I be held responsible if my will and the majority of the department’s members are ignored due to a diktat from the Chief Executive, as happened earlier this year?

Discussing this matter without naming and involving individuals is not easily done, but I would implore all members to do so. The current structure, or lack thereof, is what I disagree with and is the thrust of this debate, not to enter into the mire of personal attacks on those who have no right of reply here.

I will close my speech with the following.
In April last year, during the hustings of St Peter Port North, we were asked clearly, what would we do, as deputies, to overcome the incompetency of the civil service? My answer was emphatic, I’m unsure if we have incompetent civil servants or incompetent deputies and that I’m therefore unwilling to cast judgement. I now realise that the question was born of a frustration as to the true accountability of the deputies once elected. That question remains unanswered. I cannot in good conscience state that I feel fully accountable for the actions taken by government. The balance of authority is currently weighted heavily in favour of the unelected bureaucracy and a few ministers, which in and of itself may not be the wrong answer, but it most definitely is not the right answer when considering our system of government.

This requête offers a means of redressing the balance, of placing responsibility squarely on our shoulders, of reforming the bureaucracy in favour of clear and unambiguous lines of accountability that come to a head here. The question that I pose to you today is, are you willing to take on that responsibility? Or is it too convenient to preside over the current inefficient, incompatible status quo.

Thank you.

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