Gerry Brown: Poor managers at the heart of Government sink the ship of state

A BLIND man on a galloping horse could easily see that the vast majority of the population has suffered the results of poor government administration in this country for far too long.
Theresa May's then Cabinet ministers at Chequers to debate Brexit,  but did they have the necessary leadership and management skills?Theresa May's then Cabinet ministers at Chequers to debate Brexit,  but did they have the necessary leadership and management skills?
Theresa May's then Cabinet ministers at Chequers to debate Brexit, but did they have the necessary leadership and management skills?

Whether it is the failure to investigate the consequences of Brexit by any government department or the failure by the Department of Health to improve standards in the health service or, indeed, the failure of the Department for Transport regarding the recent Northern rail fiasco (just to mention a few examples), the public are more than fed up with the situation.

Rather than depend on hearsay or the evidence of my own eyes and experience, I was delighted to help fund formal research into the effectiveness of the Civil Service and the relationship between ministers and officials undertaken by governance expert Professor Andrew Kakabadse of Henley Business School.

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It is believed to be the biggest inquiry of its kind since the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report from which the Civil Service was established.

Guided by the question ‘Is Government fit for purpose?’, Professor Kakabadse had more than 140 confidential meetings with Secretaries of State, Junior Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, special political advisers and others.

His independent report has just been published and it doesn’t make pretty reading for the Government or public alike. The report has many insights and conclusions.

One of these is that – and I summarise it in my words – the administration of public services is currently held back by the lack of corporate governance understanding, business smarts and experience of most of the current Secretaries of State.

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The report notes that civil servants and certain ministers consider that the Secretary of State has become too “managerial, giving too much time and attention to operational management matters. Involvement with the appointment of civil servants and being chair of departmental boards are repeatedly identified as time unproductively spent, thus undermining effective policy delivery”.

In a nutshell, for basic corporate governance reasons, most government departmental boards are less productive than they could be. The primary reason is the poor leadership from the chair of the board, namely, the Secretary of State.

As in the real world of business, the quality of chairmanship is also reported as varying substantially. Certain non-executive directors (NEDs) report that they have hardly met their Secretary of State. Others say that the Secretary of State pursues their political agenda and attends less to the board oversight, advisory or support function. Equally certain Secretaries of State do not seem interested in the work and contribution of the departmental board.

One director general notes “the effectiveness of the board seems to rely largely on the degree of seriousness with which the Secretary of State takes it”, while a departmental board chair states “by far the best boards I have seen are the ones that have an independent chair”.

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Worse still, not only do Secretaries of State fancy themselves as expert business leaders and charismatic entrepreneurs, most do not bother to consult, let alone use, the knowledge and proven sector expertise of third parties (aka arm’s length bodies) specifically co-opted to their departments for that very purpose.

Arm’s length bodies are third sector organisations that report to government, with a chair and possibly CEO appointed by the minister. Overall, they expressed a dispirited or negative view of working with government. Different chairs of different bodies found the current situation a nightmare and expressed various similar reservations including “my worst experience is working with government” and “I used to blame the Permanent Secretary, but I learned it was the minister and their change of mind”.

So even those sector experts within government have limited contact with their Secretary of State. The report states that chairs and CEOs of arm’s length bodies meet the Permanent Secretary or minister “if we are lucky once a year”.

Report researcher and author Professor Andrew Kakabadse understandably recommends the appointment of independent chairs for government departmental boards to replace Secretaries of State.

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Professor Kakabadse states that this important change would not completely emasculate the leadership and influence enjoyed by Secretaries of State. However bad management and poor leadership would be significantly reduced. We would all benefit – whether public, government or minsters – since the current arrangements undermine the delivery of all our public services.

Gerry Brown is the author of The Independent Director: The Non-Executive Director’s Guide to Effective Board Presence published by Palgrave Macmillan. He helped fund the research of the Kakabadse Report published by Henley Business School.