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In the grey zone

Peter Roffey | Published:

POLICY & RESOURCES has instigated a review of governance within all States committees. How well do politicians and civil servants work together to deliver on their mandate? Do they understand their respective roles and stick to them?

(Picture by Hakinmhan/Shutterstock)

For example, do the politicians provide a strategic lead on all of the big policy issues facing their committees and stay well clear of minor administrative matters?

Just as importantly, do the senior officers understand that their role may be to advise on policy matters but it is also to implement the policy determined by the political committee, whether they agree with it or not?

It sounds all very straightforward but in the real world it isn’t as black and white as it may seem at first glance.

Of course, a politician’s job is to make policy. The clue is in the name.

Likewise, it is really not for civil servants to try to subvert political decisions – they are not accountable, no one elected them and no one can throw them out at the next election.

In reality, though, policy and operations tend to have a grey zone in-between.

Firstly, experience of operational issues helps to inform policy decisions so the last thing you want is deputies who never descend from the ivory tower of the committee room in order to really understand how their department ticks.

That doesn’t mean they should get involved in low-level, petty administrative matters – even if Mr Le Page phoned them up and said, ‘aren’t you the bloke in charge? I want this sorted’.

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For example, when I was on the Housing Committee (I suppose I am again now), I used to get phone calls along the lines of, ‘I hear number 9 on so-and-so estate is coming vacant, that’s two doors from my sister so can you allocate it to me?’ I had to explain gently that this was definitely not my role.

On the other hand if I got a call saying, ‘my husband has had a stroke and as a result our current accommodation is no longer suitable’, I would happily intervene, but only to the point of assuring myself that the relevant officers were across the situation and doing all they could to help.

Guernsey is not the UK and our government departments are small, with political boards made up of deputies who are far closer to the community than any MP could hope to be. As a result it is almost inevitable that we will be sucked into stuff deemed by some to be ‘operational’. The art is to know when to draw the line so you are not getting under the feet of the operational staff or disempowering them.

Even more importantly, it is crucial that any skirmishes into the realm of quasi-operational matters is never at the expense of providing a strategic lead.

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That was what was so damning about last year’s HMIC report on Home Affairs. It was not that the committee had talked about things like flashing bicycle lights at its meetings, but rather that they had NOT discussed big strategic issues such as a future property strategy for their department.

I am not going to go into any depth today on the damning new report just released on governance at Home Affairs. That will require careful reading and reflection.

The allegations within it are serious but unsurprising, with Deputy Lowe accused of ‘oppressive behaviour’ towards the heads of service as well as ‘bullying, harassment and public denigration’ of other staff.

Who was it who said the States have a habit of paying good money to consultants to tell us what we already know? More on this in a later column.

Back on topic – another reason why politicians occasionally have to dabble in operational stuff is when they are forced to because their department is woefully short of executive support.

Of course presidents should not really have to draft their own letters or States reports – even though their names are at the bottom of them – but I am far from alone in having done both in the past simply in order to get things done.

Indeed, thinking about it, many of the most effective committee presidents I have known over the last 37 years had the sort of relationship with their senior officers which allowed a slight blurring of the two roles – within strict limits. So while I definitely see merit in the current exercise I don’t think it pays to be too purist. To some extent it is what works that counts.

A Guernsey Press editorial recently opined that our current set-up only worked if the right people were involved. That’s true but by the same token even the most perfect governance system can be screwed up by incompetent or belligerent politicians or officers.

Briefly looking at the other side of the coin, I have definitely come across instances where top civil servants have felt it was their job – not mine – to set policy. My standard response was, ‘if you think I am so wrong then stand for election’.

Of course, such a black-and-white view does lead to logical absurdities. For example, no one would expect a Director of Public Health or another key health professional with a civil service designation to simply knuckle down and implement a political decision they thought was positively dangerous for the people of Guernsey.

That is why the DPH’s contract explicitly allows her/him to criticise the States in ways that other civil servants are prevented from doing.

I well remember my distant relative Mike Torode telling me, as HSSD minister, to ‘put the MoH back in his box’ when he had commented publicly, and adversely, on something Home Affairs was doing. I had to explain that ‘his box’ was a very big one which even included publicly criticising me and HSSD if he felt it was required.

All that said, it is not the job of 95% of civil servants to set strategic policy but simply to advise on it and then implement whatever is decided.

For instance, in areas such as education there can be conflicting views on the best ways of doing things from the professionals involved. Then it is the politicians’ role to consider all the evidence and come to a conclusion which may upset some of their expert advisors.

To be frank, where civil servants have failed to appreciate or respect this dividing line it has only occasionally been due to overweening arrogance by the officers concerned. More often the fault has lain with politicians.

If repeated political boards fail to provide the required policy leadership, then – nature abhorring a vacuum – civil servants will step in to fill that gap. And once they develop that habit, it can be hard to relinquish.

So do I say ‘bah humbug’ to this exercise? No I don’t, but I do think it needs to be hedged in with a few caveats. Not least that micro-states, with limited resources and diseconomies of scale, sometimes have to do things a bit differently.

Nor is there any ‘one size fits all’ template of perfect governance, but undoubtedly there are some basic principles which should always be kept in mind.

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