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Can a Dash for Business Expertise Solve Whitehall's Woes?

20/05/2013 11:47 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST

Civil service mandarins have had a tough time recently. Many government ministers have seen civil servants as obstacles to their plans rather than team players and the media has taken Whitehall to task over pay, perks and benefits. Given this hostile environment, it was notable to see Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude come out to bat on the side of his civil servants in recent days. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph he defended the civil service Efficiency and Reform Group, the team tasked with reforming Whitehall, as "brilliant" for their attempts at "reforming procurement, selling off unnecessary property, reducing headcount, slashing spend on consultants and saving billions".

What Maude didn't mention though, was the team of senior public figures who have agreed to join the Government as Non-Executive Directors (NEDs). These leading lights of both the business and voluntary sector, including figures such as GSK's Sir Andrew Witty and former Oxfam Chief Executive Dame Barbara Stocking, have agreed to use their expertise to help make Whitehall both more efficient and more effective.

When Francis Maude hit the ground sprinting in May 2010, he used his role at the Cabinet Office to bring together his aim of reforming the Civil Service with the needs of an austerity Government. The NEDs offered the perfect avenue to do just that. Who better to advise Ministers on efficiency savings, and help Civil Service improve service delivery at the same time, than the UK's leading business experts? With the help of Lord Browne of Madingley, the former Chief Executive of BP turned Government Lead NED, around sixty new NEDs were appointed. They were also given new powers, including the ability to recommend that the Prime Minister fires a Permanent Secretary and guaranteed face-to-face time with Ministers.

But despite this, the NEDs are still not being used effectively. In February 2013, Lord Browne told MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee that he would score their performance as a four or five out of ten, which definitely indicates room for improvement. At Insight, we have undertaken some new analysis of the NEDs system and the areas they could focus on to be most effective. We identified four key areas in line with the recognised precepts of good corporate governance in business: leadership, effectiveness, accountability and sustainability.

NEDs should play a greater role in scrutinising a Department's leadership. The troubles around Olympics security, the mistakes at the UK Border Agency and the difficulties implementing the Universal Credit are all events that would have been unacceptable in the world of business. However the civil servants responsible remained in post. When such obvious failures occur, NEDs should be unafraid to pick up the phone to the Secretary of State and to recommend new leadership.

Secondly, the NEDs could do a lot more to make Government work more effectively. Sam Laidlaw, a NED at the Department for Transport, won praise when he was asked to investigate the West Coast Main Line rail fiasco. This is by no means common practice. Ministers would be well-served by placing more difficult issues in their experienced hands in future.

The NEDs should also be better used to hold the Government to account. In the private sector, shareholders and customers demand to know how well a company is performing. However the NEDs contributions to their Departmental Annual Reports have lacked the kid of detailed analysis you might expect from such experts. If NEDs were asked to publish independent reports into their Department's performance and to explain those reports to Select Committees, MPs and the public may get a far more realistic view of the inner workings of the Whitehall machine than they do presently.

Finally, Lord Browne should take steps to ensure the newly enhanced system is sustainable. Longer terms of office for the NEDs and a greater focus on training and developing civil servants would mean the NEDs presence would be felt long after they fall out of political fashion.

The NEDs have shown great potential to effect change across Whitehall. The question remains: can the Government make the best use of them, or will their ideas be lost in the ether?

John Lehal is Managing Director of Insight Public Affairs. He tweets at @JohnLehal

A copy of Non-Executive Directors: A Quiet Revolution Transforming Whitehall published by Insight Public Affairs can be downloaded from www.insightpa.com