Who runs a Whitehall department?

Yesterday we looked at what Ministers can and should do. In my sketch I left out the crucial issue of who runs the department?

In theory the Permanent Secretary runs the department, and the Secretary of State runs the department’s relations with the outside world. They come together to agree policy.

Any Minister who trusts this split between policy and implementation is unwise. In practice a good Ministerial team work closely with their officials in the development of policy, and with them on its implementation.

Ministers do need to carry their officials with them when setting out policy. Good officials respect the right of an elected government to implement new policies which they have sold to the electors or which they believe will improve the lives of people. Good Ministers respect good officials, and value their criticisms, comments and suggested improvements to policy. A good Minister also knows when to say he has heard enough, and takes a decision.

Similarly officials need to recognise that in the case of the major policies and functions Ministers have every right to be involved in how a policy is implemented. A good Minister understands that forming and announcing a policy is just the start, not the end of his task.Ministers can apply commonsense and their knowledge of a very wide range of different people in their constituency to help the civil service design ways of delivering the service that work well for the beneficiaries.

Ministers also need to be very concerned about value for money. They should be the taxpayer’s voice in all discussions. Whitehall has an understandable wish to pad the accounts and to ensure enough resource is committed to each initiative. The Minister should be the one who queries the budgets and seeks to ensure the department is always striving to deliver more for less.

A good Minister needs a formidable range of skills. They need to be able to analyse and criticise proposals rapdily and well, to lead a team of officials to get a task done accurately and promptly, to keep morale up in their department whilst ensuring sensible pressure for better quality and better value for money. A Minister needs to be able to see ahead, to help the department avoid future problems, to challenge the way things are being done and introduce new ways of working or new policies that can work better.

It is not easy splitting implementation from policy. Ministers need to sit down and help hammer out how something will be done. They do need to take an interest in the detail as well as in the high levvel press release and soundbite.

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  1. lifelogic
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    Ministers should indeed be very concerned about value for money but rarely are.

    No one else in the state sector is concerned about value for money for the tax payer. No one, in the state sector, really even cares if what is being done, or if it provides anything of value for the tax payer at all.

    We can see from the Olympics, the Millennium Dome, the huge frauds that go on in the EU, the NHS, and most of the rest of the state sector, the recent £40M west coast rail fiasco, the green energy grants absurdity, HS2 and countless others things that efficiency is the last think that concerns them.

    • lifelogic
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      I see another new back door tax came in on 1st October under the usual health and safety ruse. If they find a breach of Health & Safety Regulation during a visit to a business then they will levy an hourly charge of £124 on the Directors of that business.

      So they no doubt will find plenty of them. They have plenty of silly rules which have nothing to do with real health and safety. So it joins speed cameras and parking tickets as a nice little earner and another good way to kill real businesses. Which minister approved this counter productive new tax scam?

    • lifelogic
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      It is always funny seeing how confused some “BBC think” people can become.

      John Simpson as reported in the Daily Mail originally put his Chelsea house into Bahamas based company and has now changed his mind.


      Surely (legally) keeping money away from the government and thus stopping them wasting it all and then perhaps using it for something far more useful (not very hard) is a highly moral thing to do.

      Even if he cannot think of anything better to do with the money, than waste most of it (perhaps on say the west cost tendering process or the absurd green religion grants) then he could always just write HMRC a cheque when ever he wants. Or he could set up a charity, for some cause close to his heart, or set up a business and provide some real jobs. Can he really not think of nothing better to do than just give it to this hugely wasteful, parasitic government?

      • Disaffected
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        The EU through directives, regulation and law. Bypassing parliament by Statutory Instrument and other routes to prevent debate. Yesterday Hague showed great contempt for the public and Tory MPs who want an in/out EU referendum. He claims the government will reject an in/out referendum, but might opt for a repatriation of powers in the manifesto. He further stated a change in relationship is required. We all know that is not possible, the whole purpose of EU Treaties are to create greater union and once powers are given they cannot be taken back. Mr Hague knows this so where does this leave his opinion yesterday: a genuine pledge, place him in the land of politically correct green EU fairies, misleading, disingenuous or lies? Perhaps you could find out for us plebs.

        A manifesto is not legally binding nor has to be honoured, as we have learnt this parliament, including all the U turn and chocolate tea pot guarantees.

        So perhaps you and other colleagues need to get real, as Brown would say, and leave the party or change the leader. We certainly do not need 650 MP mouths to feed (and their families).

        • lifelogic
          Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          Indeed – I agree that little is being achieved with Cameron’s socialist Europhile rabble but JR leaving would clearly be futile. We need more sensible MPs in the house not fewer.

          • gordon
            Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            Absolutely Lifelogic, and we ‘the people’ should do whatever we can can to add more like thinking MP’s to Mr REDWOOD and his ‘Conservative’ colleagues in the Palace of Varieties in Westminster!

    • Disaffected
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      The EU through the Civil Service is the answer. Civil service runs day-to-day operations and ministers present their work. It is absolutely clear. Ministers have become presenters with little knowledge of their department’s business.

    • lifelogic
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      On efficiency – I see that as part of the Government’s changes to the national benefits scheme, responsibility for council tax benefit will be transferred to local authorities. They will thus all have to set up local Council Tax Support Schemes. How on earth will this be more efficient than having one system? Quite apart from the disruption during the transfer, retraining, and new software, phones, leaflets, offices they will all need – in countless languages no doubt.

      Efficiency is the last thing they care about.

      • zorro
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        It is rather odd. How much do you want to bet that the individual systems they set up will not talk to each other and that people will be able to register in different councils and get multiple benefits….?


      • Disaffected
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        Why have one layer of bureaucracy when you can have several. It is socialist job creation.

  2. Alan Duckworth
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    There’s the rub John “apply common sense and knowledge” so few MPs, let alone Ministers have either. A lack of experience of commerce, industry and the world at large is now the norm. Career politicians now go from school straight into political none jobs and then parliament. They don’t know anything, have never done anything but sure can tell the rest of us who can how we should be doing it !! Just like the EU really !

  3. Border Boy
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I agree with all of this article, but in my experience the big problem is ministerial ambition and unrealistic expectations of delivery by ministers within their policy and resource allocation.

    I was a civil servant in the Immigration Service when when we were given a target of removing 30,000 illegal entrants a year. Everybody who had worked within the IS knew that the target was unrealistic within the resource allocation and the legal framework. The principal problem was the multiple avenues of appeal open to those illegals who had been detected and who we were seeking to remove – the position remains very similar to that seen just now with Abu Hamza.

    Ministers acknowledged these problems, but decided to commit to an undeliverable target anyway. It took about 5 years for them to accept that they had been unrealistic. Something similar appears to be part of the problem at DfT. There may have been a cock up by civil servants, but the franchise policy is recognised by those who understand this sort of thing to be flawed.

    Part of the problem is that ministers were advised by a host of new appointees and others like the PMDU who really did not understand the basics of delivering in the world of Immigration. Gurus were listened to, not those with professional knowledge because the Gurus were telling ministers what they wanted to hear.

    • lifelogic
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      Indeed the targets are just political grand standing. Meanwhile behind the scenes they all know, full well, that it cannot be done within the absurd legal framework they and judges have constructed, with its countless appeals and court levels.

      Of course people like Abu Hamza will use every appeal option open to them. Doubtless at tax payer’s expense. Why would they not?

      • Disaffected
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Abu Qatada is still here after May visited Jordan earlier this year even though our masters in the ECHR say we can get rid of the terrorist from our shores.

        • zorro
          Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink



    • forthurst
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      “I was a civil servant in the Immigration Service when when we were given a target of removing 30,000 illegal entrants a year.”

      That’s not a policy, though; it’s an aspiration. How often do ministers confuse the two? A policy would include the basis on which it was achievable. Ministers should not browbeat their civil servants into promising the unachievable and civil servants should not agree. In the business world, such a impasse would be resolved by the removal of one party or another, since businesses know they can’t operate successfully in that way.

      • uanime5
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Sadly in the business world it usually ends with the boss replacing the employees who tell them that their plans are impossible with employees that will tell the boss whatever they want to hear.

        • zorro
          Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          That happens in the public sector too with the same results..i.e they get managerial ‘yes men’ and ignore those who have the wise counsel of experience.


        • forthurst
          Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

          Businesses exist to make profits; they cannot survive on empty promises, unlike the public sector.

      • Border Boy
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        What ministers and civil servants should do and what actually happens are often not the same thing and, frankly, nobody from the omnipotent private sector is going to sort it out. We had an injection of private sector personnel and contractors, but they were mostly all at sea in a world they found quite alien. All this “the private sector would sort it out” stuff is a load of crap. We have to operate in the world as it is not a private sector fantasy.

        • lifelogic
          Posted October 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Indeed they would rapidly go native and find new ways to waste taxes on themselves.

  4. Pete the Bike
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    A great list of desirable ministerial and bureaucratic qualities. It’s just sad that so few exhibit any of them.

    • zorro
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      I think that the most important qualities for a minsiter are to be able to quickly grasp their brief, have the intellectual ability to both challenge policy and its implementation, and read people very well…..


  5. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    It would seem that many ministers are happy to accept the role as PR Executive for the department. They have neither the ability nor the interest in getting their hands dirty. They love to stut around and show how important they think they are whilst happily delegating the real work to their officials. They then feel that they can do a Pontius Pilate when things go wrong and stay in post. There are others who have been overlooked for ministerial office who would do a much better job but the PR Executive at the head of the coalition fails to realise that it is delivery that matters not fine words and spin, even though the leader of the opposition also thinks the opposite.

  6. Nina Andreeva
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Here is a tip for you John. You next book should be a A level politics text as your last couple of postings show how much things have moved on since I studied it in the early ’80’s. Out goes ministerial responsibility and Sir Thomas Dugdale/Lord Carrington and it now appears that it is no longer the case of the civil service not being “on top but on tap”

    The common theme that runs all through your recent work is that if you pay peanuts you get monkey MPs and civil servants. One thing that you should take an interest in is how much taxpayers money is spent on the likes of McKinsey & Co (though you can ask what value a PPE graduate with no commercial/managerial experience brings). By their very presence in the civil service its an admission that the leadership cannot cope. This is hardly surprising as any talented graduate is going to go straight into private business for the big money to clear his debts, rather than the lower wages of the civil service and the promise of a medal at retirement.

    • a-tracy
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps they should remove the pension and medal, offer similar terms to private sector graduates, they get most of it back in Tax and NI anyway!

    • a-tracy
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      What are these pay grades you talk about for graduates in the civil service and where can we see what’s on offer? I know similarly qualified graduates in the public sector that match the private sector and also get the pension deal and more holidays.

  7. oldtimer
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    My understanding of the role of the Permanent Secretary is that it includes that of Chief Accounting Officer, so that he is responsible both for implementaion of policy and for doing it in a cost effective way within his budget. Unfortunately there appears to be a well established practice that departments rush to spend their budgets up to the limits allowed instead of making savings where feasible. Ministers should put a stop to this. They can only do so if, with the PS, they watch departmental spending like hawks.

    • zorro
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      The Treasury rules often have a perverse effect on good budgeting by insisting that departments which manage their budget well suffer the next year when perhaps they could have used their savings from the previous year to invest in equipment to be more productive. There is little leeway in dealing with the Treasury.


  8. Acorn
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    You know the bit I wrote about Ministers leaving the difficult bits to Civil Servants and the Corporate lobby boys; well, I think the Daily Mail has summed it up today with its BAe investigation into the “1% Elite” activity in this take-over. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2213626/SPECIAL-INVESTIGATION-Sir-Jeremy-Heywood-centre-incestuous-nexus-lobbying-end-independence-BAE.html .

    Must stop now, I am off to set up my “personal service company”. Since Gordon set up IR35 its difficult you know cos; “Clients do not want even the slightest risk of there being a contract of service, or an employment relationship, with their contractors. That’s because they simply do not want all the hassles and expense that come from hiring an employee. So, by using a contractor’s limited company in a contract for services, clients are effectively highlighting that they do not have and do not wish to have an employer-employee relationship with the contractors.” http://www.contractorcalculator.co.uk/what_is_a_personal_service_company.aspx .

    The BBC is doing no different than the rest of industry because of UK employment law and public sector trade unions; in fact, if everyone was employed this way, the UK would have double its GDP by now.Don’t get me wrong, I like free markets and entrepreneurial endeavour but; there was not a lot wrong with a publicly organised good, as a cheap input tool for the private sector manufacturers and exporters; except national wage agreements and public sector trade unions.

    Train and road systems; gas and electric energy; telecoms, are natural technical / geographic monopolies, they benefit from the economies of size and the productivity of capital assets like one set of 3G / LTE cellular phone transceivers and 1000 MW steam turbo-generators.

    They say that the customer decides what products he wants and the competition to make them decides the price of those products. I think that is true but, there are instances where commonly required resources needed by the private sector, and it is the private sector that matters; they should agree to let a thing called government supply them. A few key international comparative indicators will tell the private sector if that government supply is failing in its tasks. Stuff like MW hrs per employee and cost per passenger mile.

    • forthurst
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      The DM article is excellent; the current highest rated comment also merits approbation; although it’s not entirely fair in the context, we know what she means:

      “There are times one goes to bed thinking that one wouldn’t really be upset if one woke up to find there had been a military coup and all our politicians had been locked up.”

      On IR35:

      “Clients do not want even the slightest risk of there being a contract of service, or an employment relationship, with their contractors. That’s because they simply do not want all the hassles and expense that come from hiring an employee.”

      No. That’s because they don’t want HMRC to be able to prove that the contractors were under the effective day to day management of the client and should therefore have been on PAYE. I can’t imagine a more autonomous situation than someone being parked in front of an autocue at a set time every day, after all they could be wearing trainers out of vision.

  9. Martin Ryder
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    At what point in the selection process for MPs is their ability to be good ministers taken into account? Which is more important to the selectors: (a) the candidate’s ability to manage people and money; (b) their ability to connect with their constituents; or (c) their ability to fit in with the other people in their party and the party’s leader?

    We will never get the number of good ministers that we need until (a) becomes a priority. There is no need for MPs to have the ability to manage BAE or M&S, as people with those abilities are needed in the productive sector, but they must be able to get their departments to follow government policy and to stay within budget.

    Reply : I was never tested on the main skills that Ministers need where these are additional and different to the skills an MP needs.

    • Nina Andreeva
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      (c) Is the most important requirement to become a Conservative candidate these days.

      She may be gone but the Menschevik wing is still firmly in control of the party with its ideas that thought she would make a great MP (you can also translate it out of Russian to mean “minority” too) . Its not just in winnable seats but mould also must be used in no hoper ones too (at the last election we had some presentable young man from London with a Oxford history degree and a job in advertising). However flicking through my copy of the “Guardian” this morning it appears their agenda of gay rights, windmills and PPE seminar topics, such as fixed term parliaments, is not working in Northern urban areas. Why should it? My mother is more interested in whether when she comes back from her holidays she is going to find her house ransacked. While the ethic vote is going to be similarly switched on with traditional law and order policies that protect their shops. Not by issuing an edict that bans “BaBa black sheep” from schools because its offensive. Looking at the photos of the lads who were killed defending the family business in Brum last summer shows them wearing mortarboards so that family was probably interested in receiving a quality education too.

      John, if you bump into grand election strategist Osborne at the conference please hit him across the head with a copy of last week’s “Economist” and make sure he reads the “Lexington” column. It shows that elections are won in the US these days by getting the core vote out, the days of Jesse Jackson’s “rainbow coalitions” are well and truly over, if you want to stay in power that is.

      • Nina Andreeva
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        Full disclosure, before you chop the bit about “Ba ba black sheep”, my other half is Chinese and the kids are Euroasian. They alll think such stuff is faintly ridiculous as non white people in UK have bigger things to worry about than nursery rhymes.

    • zorro
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Reply to reply – John, what reasons were you given for being chosen to be a minister?


      Reply I do not recall being given any reasons.

      • zorro
        Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

        Reply : I was never tested on the main skills that Ministers need where these are additional and different to the skills an MP needs.

        Reply I do not recall being given any reasons.

        Thank you for your honesty, but it does show the seemingly hit and miss nature of selection procedures! You could be lucky or unlucky in your choice. Bearing in mind the relative importance of these roles for the taxpayer and the nature of democratic government, it does put a heavy burden on the impartiality of the Civil Service which can be good in a way…..However, you would still want to think that the PM when choosing a minister had made a careful assessment of the skills he required for the person to take for the job, and an honest assessment to the candidate on why he felt able to trust the person in that role. I know matters may be different in government, but in private industry one would certainly be looking for more evidence of ability to undertake a job than seems apparent of ministers just recently as mentioned in the previous post (Jacqui Smith)….


  10. Barbara Stevens
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me the layers of Whitehall civil servants is silly, MPs has well appear little educated to take on the job of Ministers, is this why the civil servants take over? It appears so. Perhaps many jobs within parliament and Whitehall need modernising, it makes you wonder.
    Thank you or your explanation of how they should work, it was enlightening. Some how I don’t think they really work that way, it always appears chaos to me. Perhaps its time MPs were tested before they enter parliament so we are sure we are getting value for money. After all everyone as to have exams to gain jobs these days? I fear many would fail at the first hurdle.
    Having a nice face, being able to communicate well, and may be well off, or not, who cares, can give you advantage these days, but that does not mean one is good enough for the job. We can see the flaws in many, when they call police ‘plebs’, but I’ve no idea what a ‘pleb’ is. I wish someone would tell me.
    What have we become?

    • Bazman
      Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      “Where did you school?” Someone who has been to a state funded school. If you did then you are a pleb. Grammar school pupils are plebs. Is that clear enough for you?

  11. uanime5
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    The problems begin when ministers confuse common sense and knowledge with their own personal prejudices and ideology.

  12. Merlin
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Always remember that when your political career in the UK is over there is the EUSSR and the United Nations to continue your career with, probably one of the many reasons why any self serving politician will never leave the EUSSR.

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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