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Speaking to the Daily Mail in March, sources at the department for Communities and Local Government argued

Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. Photo: author’s own

that “there was really no need for councils who opt for an elected mayor to have a chief exec – because the mayor can take on the executive role and could deal with the directors of various government departments himself.”

Since then, most of England’s cities have rejected the government’s proposal for directly elected mayors, but what of the argument that elected mayors should take on the role of chief executive?

As I have argued before, while some councils will re-badge their senior officer, not many will experiment for long without a senior officer. The reasons for this are well argued in a new report by the Group of 30, an international grouping of central bankers and senior financiers. In their paper on governance of financial institutions they outline 10 tasks that well-functioning boards should discharge. Two in particular concern the role of the chief executive:

Appoint the CEO and gauge top talent in the firm, assuring that the CEO and top team possess the skills, values, attitudes, and energy essential to success. A very good CEO is preferable to a “star” CEO. The board must confirm the appointment of independent members of the executive team, including the chief risk officers (CROs) and head of internal audit, and should be consulted with respect to other very senior appointments. Boards should maintain a focus on talent development and succession planning, which are critical components of organizational stability.

Respect the distinction between the board’s responsibilities for direction setting, oversight, and control, and management’s responsibilities to run the business. It is misguided and dangerous to conflate the responsibilities of management with those of the board. The board’s primary responsibilities include: (a) reaching agreement on a strategy and risk appetite with management, (b) choosing a CEO capable of executing the strategy, (c) ensuring a high-quality leadership team is in place, (d) obtaining reasonable assurance of compliance with regulatory, legal, and ethical rules and guidelines and that appropriate and necessary risk control processes are in place, (e) ensuring all stakeholder interests are appropriately represented and considered, and (f) providing advice and support to management based on experience, expertise, and relationships.”

The Financial Times today reports on the woes to befall Jamie Dimon the chairman and chief executive of JP Morgan Chase and quotes Robert McCormick, chief policy officer of Glass Lewis & Co on the joint role “It is potentially insurmountable conflict. How can you oversee yourself?”

This idea of checks and balances is as essential in the corporate governance of democratic institutions as it is in financial institutions. Human beings are not omniscient creatures, we all require advice, cooperation and partnership to achieve all but the most simple of tasks. It is no dilution of democracy to recognise that political leaders also require others to achieve their goals. And of what value is it to be surrounded by people whose roles you think you can do better than them? JP Morgan Chase seems to be the latest to discover the myth of the emperor-like, all-powerful leader who acts without any real challenge to his authority. Without the cooperation of others who bring new capacity, knowledge and skill, leaders ultimately deny themselves any hope of success. Eric Pickles should listen to the bankers in the Group of 30 and stop encouraging mayors to go macho.

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A little over a year ago, I was called to a meeting with two senior civil servants, from two different government departments, to be briefed on the government’s public service reform white paper, Open Public Services. The aim of the paper was to present a new angle on the government’s strategic agenda. Yes, there was austerity, yes there would be cuts, but the white paper would present the positive case for reform, joining up the change agendas in health, police, schools and local government. It was explained that, at the next election, the government wanted to be able to say more than it had cut the deficit. It also wanted to be able to articulate its underlying strategy and achievements in public service reform.

 


However, the white paper, as then drafted, never saw the light of day. It was caught up in inter-governmental disagreement, partly between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, partly between departmental interests, and partly between those who believed in harder or softer policy. In the end the paper was re-written several times and, although accompanied by a strongly worded article by the Prime Minister in the Telegraph, it was eventually launched to a bit of a shrug of the shoulders from public service chief executives. Everyone could see its pro-market  rhetoric, but what impact would the words on the page actually have in the real world of services designed or commissioned? It was written as if market forces didn’t already exist in great swathes of public services and yet had little to say about how more would be done in this direction.  Furthermore, perhaps because it was read as a post-hoc attempt to make sense of existing (and much harder-edged) policy commitments in health, police, schools and local government, it had nothing like the bite of those departmental drivers.

Interestingly, therefore, Ben Brogan at the Telegraph has an update today saying that “Downing Street is starting all over again on public service reform.”

I agree with Fraser Nelson who says this is “depressing,” but it is not surprising. The white paper was always a bit of a badge, stuck on to create the impression of change, but running the risk of over-promising what the government had no idea how to deliver.

William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall

The Foreign Secretary has delivered a speech defending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is well worth a read for those of us interested in this administration’s attitude to government and for its direction of travel on public services. Beside what he has to say about UK foreign policy, the speech is remarkable for what it says about how government works. At a time when most ministers (of this government and the last) go out of their way to denigrate their officials, William Hague’s speech provides a fine counter example.

The Foreign Secretary praises junior officials, talks about the need for good policy and management skills, and mounts an eloquent defence of the need for institutions themselves. He says:

 “Strong institutions are necessary in civil society, to encourage participation and keep in check an overmighty State; they are necessary to our judiciary and Parliament so that the law is upheld and the making of it respected; but they are also necessary within the State, a point tragically overlooked by those Prime Ministers who have created and abolished departments on a fancy or a whim, destroying as they did so the pride and continuity of thousands of public servants while rendering government incomprehensible to the average citizen. The whole country should know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is and what it does, and all those interested in foreign policy at home or abroad should see it as a centre of excellence with which they aspire to be associated. This can only be achieved if it is in itself a strong institution, able to attract and retain exceptional people from a wide range of backgrounds and to generate powerful ideas.”

This is true, but it is not something that has been obvious in recent political discourse. The Foreign Secretary is right to pinpoint the fad for “machinery of government” changes that tend to characterise the annual Cabinet re-shuffle. While reform of government departments is perfectly legitimate in order to focus governmental resources on priority areas, the reality of these reorganisations have often been skin deep; a re-branding exercise required by factional, horse trading rather than any genuine re-direction of governmental attention.

But William Hague’s speech also brings into the focus this government’s aspiration to deliver a post-bureaucratic state. The theory behind which is perhaps most concisely captured by David Cameron himself:

“We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every­one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The in formation revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action.”

What is striking about the post-bureaucratic state language is how complete and all-encompassing it is. It does not suggest an evolution in which government machinery is made incrementally more transparent using information technology, but recognising that central expertise would always be necessary. It suggests instead, that dispersed “people power” can and should entirely replace the power of official structures of expertise; of bureaucracies.

Oliver Letwin, for example, talks about the “post-bureaucratic age” in terms of the “point we’ve reached in our and the world’s history.” And he compares present social changes to the very beginnings of modernism and the invention of the printing press. “We don’t think that the coming of the internet age and the associated sociocultural changes are just something that’s happened that’s sort of interesting in the way in which the invention of some new machine tool or whatever might be interesting. We think it’s a profound a shift as the invention of printing with as much effect on the way in which cultural and social life is conducted as that had.”

The Conservatives’ post-bureaucratic age was an ambitious attempt to hook a programme for a new government to deeper social changes that would undoubtedly affect the administration’s work. Why, however, the government let itself claim that our age had moved beyond the need for organised expertise was surely a misjudgement.  It is therefore interesting, and the first that I have noticed, that a senior member of the government is prepared to stand up for traditional institutions, for governance and significantly to defend the necessary role of official expertise in our democracy.

Photo: FCO on Flickr

Murdo Fraser MSP (front left)

Four years ago the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson ran an essay on plans for a “velvet divorce” in the Conservative party, “which would give the Scottish Tories a new name, a distinct identity, and make the Conservatives officially as well as in practice a party exclusively devoted to seeking power in England and Wales.”

The article was full of exquisite detail about the depths to which Conservatives saw themselves as having sunk. David Cameron was said to have gone north in search of the parties pulse, and found the patient was not responding. Nelson reported Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s view that “being Conservative in his motherland is now seen as ‘something done by consenting adults in private’. … Voting Tory is seen as a harmless perversion, like Morris dancing or cricket. A despised party could at least repent. But there is no hope for a forgotten party.”

It is this analysis that has led Murdo Fraser, the leading contender to win control of the Conservatives in Scotland, to propose disbanding the party and the creation of new right of centre, unionist banner.  Mr Fraser believes that the Conservative brand has become so damaged, so loathed, that no new leader will be able to get voters to change their minds about what the party stands for. This genuinely radical conclusion, which would leave the Prime Minister with no party apparatus, and no capacity to campaign in Scotland, has injected rare controversy, and indeed strategy, into the leadership race which was otherwise unlikely to raise an eyebrow.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, which got the scoop on Mr Murdo’s plans:

“In an electoral pact with the Conservatives, successful Scottish MPs of the new party would then take the Conservative whip in the Commons and be eligible for ministerial posts in any Conservative government. The arrangement would be similar to that which has operated in Germany for many years between the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria.”

The influential Fraser Nelson and the Spectator are supportive of this move on the grounds that “Scottish Conservative has, alas, become an oxymoron. Murdo Fraser is right: it’s time to start again.” Francis Maude is also reported to be in favour. Michael Forsyth (Lord Forsyth of Drumlean), who was the Scottish Secretary from 1995 to 1997, meanwhile is scathing:

“I think it is naive and simplistic in the extreme to think that changing the name of the party and cutting it adrift from the rest of the Conservative Party could somehow bring electoral success. In fact, electoral success is delivered by having credible policies. I think the strategy is one of appeasement of the nationalists and I think it is one that will fail. Any policy which appeases nationalists is damaging to the union by definition.”

It is going to be interesting to see who is right. My own view is that there are many more people in Scotland with “conservative” values than there are voters of the Conservative party.  The Labour party in Scotland has always targeted socially conservative “working families”, and the SNP has successfully attracted votes from countryside conservatives in the north-east.  Of course, being conservative does not equal being Conservative but neither do the differences in social attitudes in Scotland explain the inability of the political centre-right to reinvent itself. There are many areas of voters’ emotional and value laden cores that a competent party of conservative values could compete for in Scotland, where the political discourse is focused on conserving a national way of life, including political and social privileges, in the face of relative economic decline.

However, there is such a distrust of political Conservatives that Conservatism has come to be seen as anti-Scottish, or incompatible with Scottishness, in both profound and superficial ways. Such is this backdrop that anyone associated with the party is taken to believe and not to believe in certain things whatever they say or do to the contrary. In other words, this prejudgement of Conservatives fatally undermines their credibility before they have even opened their mouth.

With Labour’s Scottish hegemony well and truly over and the SNP’s political raison d’être looking more and more unclear there is room for change in Scottish politics. If Murdo Fraser wins, proves a competent leader and finds a way of separating his policy voice from the England’s Tories, I predict that their performance can only improve in future polls.

PHOTO http://www.murdofraser.com

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