Some officials “smuggle their often half-baked proposals past ministers” says Cabinet Office adviser who quits

By Tony Collins

Jerry Fishenden has resigned from the Cabinet Office‘s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group after nearly six years. First he was its chairman and more recently co-chairman.

The Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group comprises privacy and security experts who give the government independent analysis and guidance on personal data and privacy initiatives by departments, agencies and other public sector bodies. This includes GOV.UK Verify.

The group’s advice has had the citizens’ interests in mind. But the group might have been seen by some Whitehall officials as having an open and frank “outsiders” culture.

Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister, helped to set up the group but he left in 2015 and none of his replacements has had a comparable willingness to challenge the civil service culture.

Maude welcomed the help of outsiders in trying to change the civil service.  He tried to bring down the costs of Government IT and sought to stop unnecessary or failing projects and programmes. He also wanted to end the “oligopoly” of a handful of large IT suppliers. But Maude’s initiatives have had little continuing support among some Whitehall officials.

Fishenden said in a blog post this week that Maude had wanted the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group to be a “critical friend” – a canary that could detect and help fix policy and technology issues before they were too far down the policy / Bill process.

“The idea was to try to avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, such as the Identity Card Act, where Whitehall generalists found themselves notably out of their depth on complex technical issues and left Ministers to pick up the pieces.”

He added that “since Francis Maude’s departure, there has been only one meeting” with subsequent Cabinet Office ministers.

“Without such backing, those officials who find the group’s expert reviews and analyses “challenging” have found it easier to ignore, attempting instead to smuggle their often half-baked proposals past Ministers without the benefit of the group’s independent assistance…

“Let’s just hope that after the election the value of the group will be rediscovered and government will breathe life back into the canary. Doing so would help realise Francis Maude’s original purpose – and bring significant benefits to us all, whether inside or outside of government.”

Comment

One of the Privacy and Consumer Group’s strengths has been its independent view of Government IT-related initiatives  – which is probably the main reason it has been marginalised.

Fishenden’s departure is further confirmation that since Maude’s departure, the Cabinet Office – apart from the Government Digital Service – has settled back into the decades-old Whitehall culture of tinkering with the system while opposing radical change.

While Whitehall’s culture remains unreformable, central government will continue to lose the best IT people from the private sector. Some of these include the former Government Digital Service executive director Mike Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who took over from Bracken, Janet Hughes, programme director of Verify,  Andy Beale, GDS’s chief technology officer, Paul Maltby, GDS’s director of data and former Whitehall chief information officers Joe Harley, Steve Lamey, Andy Nelson and Mark Dearnley.

The unfortunate thing is that a few powerful career civil servants, including some permanent secretaries, will be delighted to lose such outsiders.

Jerry Fishenden is simply the latest casualty of a civil service tradition that puts the needs of the department before those of the citizen.

It’s a culture that hasn’t changed for decades.

The canary that ceased to be – Jerry Fishenden’s blog on his departure

Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group

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2 responses to “Some officials “smuggle their often half-baked proposals past ministers” says Cabinet Office adviser who quits

  1. Wish I could say I was surprised.
    It reminds me of the early Middle Ages with each baron regarding his estate as a fiefdom to do with as he saw fit even if it disadvantaged the country as a whole.
    I imagine those bright sparks who left government service will have been largely recruited into the private sector. I also think their expertise and insights will be, not only valued but, used to the advantage of the IT industry in any negotiations with government,
    Wish the political world understood more about these issues and how important they are.
    Thanks, Tony.
    Zara..

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    • Thank you Zara. I suspect most politicians understand the issues but believe that the civil service cannot in practice be reformed; and they’re probably right. A government cannot work without the full support of the civil service, and any hint of Sir Humphrey’s opposition to reform would have the politicians backing off. No prime minister wanting a reform of Whitehall has succeeded to date. When it comes to real power, the cabinet secretary and Sir Humphrey will always have the upper hand. They run the implementation arm of government; they can’t be rejected by the electorate; and within reason they can say what they like to Parliament, without fear of career consequences.
      In her book “Called to Account” – a great read – Margaret Hodge, the former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, has a chapter on “unconscionable waste” and the inability of MPs to bring civil servants to account. At one point civil servants tried to have the Public Accounts Committee closed down. She says in the book, “That was what left me aghast: the civil servants’ apparent belief that they could dictate and control how politicians behaved and that they would legislate us out of existence if we did not abide by their interpretation of the world”. Reform and the civil service? It’s as unlikely as Sir Humphrey ever saying, without a wry smile, “I welcome openness.” Tony.

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