Oui, monsieur le ministre

Author(s):  Nick Pearce
Published date:  20 Apr 2007
Source:  Public Finance Magazine
Traditionally, British civil servants think they do things better than their foreign equivalents. But there are numerous examples of international good practice that Whitehall would do well to emulate.

The journalist Simon Jenkins once argued that ‘the British pride themselves on their ignorance of politics abroad… any suggestion that foreign experience might have application here is ridiculed’.

This claim is borne out by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s recent study on the civil service. There is apparently great reluctance on the part of British officials (and ministers) to see the innovations of overseas counterparts as relevant here. Mandarins interviewed for the research even quipped that you go abroad to learn how not to do things.

Much of this insularity stems from the ‘Northcote Trevelyan’ culture, which rested on a bargain between ministers and officials so that in return for loyal service, officials enjoyed a monopoly on policy advice. This arrangement hardly encourages openness to foreign ideas.

This is not to say that Whitehall is completely immune to inspiration from overseas. The UK has borrowed numerous ideas from abroad, such as tax credits and welfare reform policies from the US.

Yet such learning is often confined to small pockets across the civil service. Incredibly, Whitehall has no process for monitoring policy innovations from Scotland and Wales, despite initial claims that devolution would create ‘policy laboratories’ across the UK.

It is true that borrowing practices from much smaller or culturally dissimilar countries can be problematic. But so long as we are aware that one size does not fit all, and distinguish between a policy concept — which is ripe for borrowing — and the application of that policy — which should be adapted to the specific environment — importing new ideas should be encouraged.

In fact, IPPR’s research revealed a number of ideas and innovations from overseas that could prove fruitful for the UK.

The Whitehall policy-making process is very insular, often conducted behind closed doors with little attempt to engage stakeholders or capitalise on external expertise. In particular, there is a gulf between those designing policy and those delivering it.

In Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden, civil servants regularly seek to exploit the expertise and knowledge in universities, business schools and research institutes.

In Japan, the Government Policy Evaluation Act ensures that policy is challenged and evaluated throughout the process, not just ‘after the event’.

In Singapore, the ‘public services for the twenty-first century’ programme has institutionalised a process for capturing innovative ideas and experiences of officials on the front line.

A capacity to learn from previous experiences is essential to progress. Yet Whitehall’s institutional memory is poor. In contrast, the Danish government has pioneered a ‘knowledge management’ strategy. Departments and agencies now have to produce ‘intellectual capital statements’, which report on the status of their knowledge management strategies.

As the IPPR has argued elsewhere, without stronger external accountability the civil service will continue to underperform. New Zealand has done more than any other ‘Westminster system’ to tackle this problem. There, ministers are accountable for policy, while chief executives are accountable for service delivery and the management of their departments.

Whitehall’s gene pool and skills base is too narrow, with little interchange between the civil service and the wider public service.

In France, the unified civil service guarantees that senior officials are exposed to other parts of the public service in local and regional government, giving them direct experience of public service delivery. At the very least, Britain should ensure that central government officials spend more of their careers in local government and other parts of the public sector. And we need much more in the way of public sector-wide training.

The recently launched National School of Government could play a central role here. It could learn from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government: established in 2002 by a consortium of Australian and New Zealand governments (both state and federal) and 12 leading universities and business schools. The school is geared to building the skills base of all future public service leaders, and encourages the sharing of ideas and knowledge.

Whitehall’s departmental culture militates against effective joined-up government. But in Finland, ‘horizontal governance’ has overcome many of the problems of departmentalism. Core priorities have been reconfigured along horizontal lines; budgets have been assigned to them, as well as a lead co-ordinating minister and group of officials.

So it seems the Whitehall man does not always know best.

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. Innovations in Government: international perspectives on civil service is available as a free download.


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