What Whitehall’s exodus tells us about Lord Browne

The extent of non-executive board members’ invisibility has been revealed by the ‘problematic’ turnover of permanent secretaries

“Are you expecting departures,” Lord Browne, former chair of BP and newly-minted expert on Whitehall, was asked when he appeared before the Commons public administration select committee (Pasc) barely four weeks ago.

“Not yet”, the corporate panjandrum replied.

Since then Moira Wallace and Dame Helen Ghosh, the respective permanent secretaries at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Home Office, have packed their bags and announced their exits, leaving Browne looking somewhat out of touch.

In an interview with Civil Service World magazine, Browne changed his tune, acknowledging that turnover in Whitehall is “problematic” and that non-executive directors on Whitehall departmental boards are “concerned”. He might have added that they seem to be out of the loop as far as the intentions of their senior officials are concerned, which doesn’t sound like an endorsement of their effectiveness.

Browne is the government’s lead on a project that started out with fanfare but after two years has largely run into the sand. This was a reworking of the Thatcherite plan to transform Whitehall’s upper reaches by seeding departments with top business people, coming in as non-executives, who would kick ass and get things moving.

The original plan was that dynamic secretaries of state would chair new departmental boards, aided and abetted by the bosses and pummel the bureaucrats into shape.

But it hasn’t quite worked out like that. The boards have been less visible than anticipated. They couldn’t recruit top-rank business people; ministers haven’t bothered to turn up to board meetings; and boards have been largely ignored by both scrutineers (not a single appearance by non-executives before the public accounts committee) and by the Cabinet Office in its pursuit of efficiency, for example over sharing services between departments [pdf].

Did Wallace confide in the non-executives at DECC and involve them in her battles with ministers and the Treasury? Did Ghosh secure high-grade board discussion of the Borders Agency or her fraught relations with the Commons public accounts committee? No – which reflects how marginal this latest exercise in Whitehall reform has been.

In front of the MPs on 10 July, Browne graded the performance of non-executives at two out of 10, but claimed they would do better in future. But we are now entering a ‘hot’ phase in the political cycle, as the potential breakup of the coalition and the next election loom. Whitehall agendas will become even more political and the prospects of consensual corporatisation will recede further.

Yet Browne did not survive all those years in the corporate jungle by not mastering political skills himself, one of the biggest being a reluctance to criticise people more powerful than yourself. Browne has said little or nothing about the role of secretaries of state, and offers no opinion about whether importing business models of governance makes any sense when ministers continue to behave like martinets.

He would be so much more convincing if he turned round and addressed his remarks to the prime minister, asking bluntly whether his (and his predecessors’) style of government is compatible with corporate goal-seeking as he understands it, or whether Whitehall governance is and must always be sui generis, peculiar, untidy.

That is the view of the civil service old guard, such as former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, and deserves consideration.

David Walker is contributing editor to the Public Leaders Network

This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian Public Leaders Network free to receive regular emails on the issues at the top of the professional agenda.

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