Silo at the centre of government

YOU may not be aware of this, but when the States meets tomorrow it will potentially be for deputies to have a punch-up with chief executive Paul Whitfield, leading the public sector transformation programme, and Policy and Resources, which is – supposedly – supervising the process.

(Picture by TLBridges/Shutterstock)
(Picture by TLBridges/Shutterstock)

The battleground is over that holy grail of local politics: whether government really is joined up or not.

Yes, at departmental level, deputies will argue. There’s never been more cross-committee working; never has it been more effective. It’s better, counters P&R, but it needs to be supported through ‘appropriate governance and administrative structures’.

That’s code, in the mind of a number of members, for a Tolkienesque ‘one ring to rule them all… and in the darkness bind them’ approach, based on P&R’s desire to establish political policy supervisory boards aimed at enforcing joined-up government.

The odd thing is that although this is a very serious battle, it’s also akin to a civil war and – thanks to Brexit – we can all see how damaging those are.

To explain, while there’s a lot of buy-in for the essentially civil service-led transformation programme, there are increasing concerns about the ideology being adopted and who, politically, is responsible for policing it.

That’s come to a head with P&R publishing its Policy and Resource Plan update and it’s why it faces 14 separate amendments, all of arcane complexity, but generally trying to push back against what we might call increasing centralisation of government.

You can see how serious this is when one of the amendments begins: ‘To resolve that the States of Deliberation is democratically accountable to the people of Guernsey for carrying out the functions of government and parliament.’

A bit of a ‘you what?’ moment, surely? We all know that. Yet the thrust of the move is clear: ‘This amendment revisits the rules on civil service accountability, putting mechanisms in place to ensure that the new structure is truly cross-governmental… rather than simply the centralisation of services to P&R.’

And since it comes from Deputies Michelle Le Clerc and Heidi Soulsby, respectively heads of Employment and Social Security and Health and Social Care, and two of the most collegiate members of the Assembly, you can detect the strength of feeling on this.

Simultaneously, however, the amendment has triggered huge concerns within the civil service itself because, as presented, it could give politicians powers to hire and fire officials and undermine the authority of the chief executive.

So since the stakes couldn’t be higher, what’s triggered all this? Oddly enough, Policy and Resources has and, like civil wars everywhere, there’s regret that liked and respected figures appear to be on the wrong side of the argument.

Most will recall that Guernsey used to have 53 different committees handling different aspects of life here. They mushroomed as need arose, hence the delightful Island Reception Committee and the as-yet-untold story of a Royal visit, a secretary to the Bailiff, a young reporter and some rather fine claret.

No matter, most agree that slimming them down to core departments and centralising the underpinning resources of HR, ICT, finance, data protection, health and safety and PR (or communications as it’s called these days) made perfect sense.

Is it, however, working as it should? Perhaps perversely, centralisation’s now seen in political circles as more the problem and less the solution.

As one deeply frustrated deputy told me, ‘If only [chief executive] Paul [Whitfield] would get out of Frossard Towers he’d see that the biggest silo is actually outside his own door.’

In other words, the feedback on the (alleged) lack of joined up government is filtered by the large and powerful Corporate Services team on Frossard House’s top floor before it gets to the boss.

‘You wouldn’t believe the trouble we’re having with Department X, chief…’ sort of thing.

Yet the frontline departments, dealing with real people and real needs, see Corporate Services as detached from the reality of those doing the day job. The link with helping get things done in the field has been lost through centralisation.

For example, there’s not much point in being a stickler for data protection if a patient risks death because his or her records can’t be accessed. Does the balance between ‘how can we resolve this?’ v. ‘those are the rules’ tilt the wrong way when you’re not on the spot?

Essentially, then, since P&R is responsible for the transformation changes, why isn’t it monitoring how successfully they’re being implemented? It’s why another amendment wants the States to instruct P&R to appoint a political lead for Corporate Services so that an elected member has responsibility and accountability for the department over and above the chief executive.

You can see this is straying into that other States trigger point, operational versus policy areas, which is why the civil service is so nervous about it. At the same time, as an impartial body that’s non-political, it’s very difficult for them to express a view on these things.

Basically, however, front-line departments are unhappy with the service they receive from Corporate Services but especially about the mechanisms which exist for addressing that. Another reason why P&R is being asked to commit to six-monthly ‘summits’ with the principal committees to discuss resourcing and other joined-up stuff.

You’ll detect, I hope, that I’ve not taken sides on this. It looks to me like both camps make some good and valid points. And, given Brexit and the attacks on Crown Dependency autonomy over public registers, if P&R has taken its eye off the internal reforms ball, would that be such a surprise?

More fundamentally, however, all this overshadows what should be a debate on what’s now to be known as the Future Guernsey Plan – the blueprint for the island’s economic prosperity and social wellbeing.

In these divided times, let’s hope jaw, jaw trumps war, war and the States come to a negotiated settlement.

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