Dear Mr. Jenkin,
This week (19.11.16) I attended your keynote speech to the Institute for Government regarding Civil Service reform, or as it turned out, the failure of Civil Service reform. You made a number of interesting points which are relevant to the reform of any public organisation, such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), whose own reform is long overdue. For those unable to attend the meeting it can be viewed in full here:
You gave something of a historical review of Civil Service reform and outlined the more recent attempts by your own committee before concluding that, “reform is not something you can do to an organisation from the outside.” If this is the case then reform relies upon dysfunctional bodies having the insight to identify and modify their own weaknesses. In the case of PHSO their five-year change programme under the leadership of Dame Julie Mellor has been a spectacular failure. phso-can-a-dysfunctional-organisation-reform-itself/ As you aptly pointed out, reform depends on effective leadership but you also stated that leadership is the last to admit the failings of the organisation. Without external involvement, the organisation will writhe through years of sorry decline as those who can leave (24% staff turnover at PHSO) and those who remain are unable to find an outlet to voice their concerns. PACAC, your committee, are the only parliamentary body who can oversee the Ombudsman, but with your hands-off approach, this organisation has been allowed to limp from one failure to another delivering scandalously poor investigation reports to the public.
At the heart of the problem and the elephant in the room, is the fact that protection of Civil Servants and Crown Servants offers protection to the Ministers, to government and to everyone else who might be held to account for poor decision making and basically corrupt behaviour. Parliamentarians choose the leaders of these organisations who are all clones of previous leaders. So we have an endless loop where only the names change, but the process stays the same. Has civil service reform failed due to the lack of genuine impetus to reform this body from those with the power to do so? We have had reform of the benefits system, which was imposed from the outside and behaviour was modified through punitive sanctions. Equally, government have achieved reform of the NHS through the imposure of new legislation and new work contracts. These two events did not take years of delicate negotiation to modify internal cultures and just goes to show what can be achieved in a relatively short time when those in power can see the benefits of the reform.
External public accountability, if consistently applied, can alter behaviour. Substantial compensation payouts would sharpen the focus of organisations controlling tight budgets while public reports of upheld complaints would make it clear to all parties what went wrong and why. Yet years of light-touch, self-regulation backed up by regulatory bodies who are devoid of effective enforcement powers have allowed public servants to act with impunity. As you say, we may have moved from the ‘age of deference’ to the ‘age of reference’ however, parliamentary and public bodies use every trick in the book to keep the truth under wraps and deny justice to the public.
Reform of the Civil Service, reform of the Ombudsman and reform of parliament itself will continue to revolve like the ‘cracked record’ you mentioned because the present system suits those who are on the inside and they care not for those who are on the outside.
If reform requires internal change then you need to appoint change makers; people who think outside the box, do not bow to the establishment and have the courage to take risks. You have the opportunity afforded to you by the early resignation of Dame Julie Mellor, the Ombudsman to make such an appointment for the PHSO. Will you take this opportunity to deliver a change leader, to ensure there is improved accountability across public services or will you select another safe pair of hands?
Actions speak louder than words Mr. Jenkin.
PHSO pressure group