Slow guy – or fall guy?

The abrupt departure of Paul Whitfield as States chief executive was not a complete surprise – as touched on here two weeks ago – but was it justified? Richard Digard looks at some of the implications

(Picture By Peter Frankland, 29945098)
(Picture By Peter Frankland, 29945098)

BACK in 2015 for reasons that aren’t important now, I prepared a 400-word summary of a 60-odd page document entitled A Framework For Public Sector Reform, a States publication that we can today identify as former chief executive Paul Whitfield’s nemesis.

Of its four priorities, one was demonstrating value for money within the public sector and another was enhanced organisational performance measurement and management. Reform was required because of this community’s shifting demographics, changing expectations of what the civil service should deliver and the need to support the island’s economy.

Among the core elements of the package was a leadership strategy, greater civil service accountability, zero-based budgeting (something Charles Parkinson unsuccessfully pursued while treasury minister 2008-2012) and priority-based budgeting for revenue expenditure.

All in all, well observed requirements for change and, if anything, more relevant today than they were six years ago when the document was being put together. Fully implemented, the framework could have radically improved – and slimmed by a minimum of 200 posts – the entire public sector. The States’ £2bn property portfolio would have been rationalised, silo working ended, and an emphasis placed on performance management and outcomes.

And therein lies the problem for Mr Whitfield, who was last seen leaving Frossard House the previous Thursday with a few items in a cardboard box having been brutally sacked a short while earlier. The same week, incidentally, that he returned from a well-earned holiday, having previously been made an OBE in recognition of his skilled and diligent steering of the island through the ravages of Covid.

I make the point deliberately. The announcement of his dismissal was unnecessarily unpleasant. The quote from Policy & Resources president Peter Ferbrache – ‘The committee recognised the need for a change in senior leadership and have taken action to bring this about’ – served one purpose only. It was to show that the island’s senior politicians are eaters of red meat and able to act decisively, whatever the cost in cash and humanitarian terms.

Well, we certainly had action that day, but I do wonder what the objective is.

Mr Whitfield, with whom I’ve shared a couple of curries and the odd pint over the years, is a decent chap, resilient under pressure and remarkably unflappable given he effectively had 40 political masters who all knew better than him and in many cases weren’t slow to tell him so.

He was respected by his colleagues and the manner of his departure has seriously unsettled senior civil servants, so the question, ‘Who’s next?’, is hanging over Frossard House. That’s because the direction of P&R’s ‘need for change’ remains opaque and if Mr Whitfield hasn’t been doing what its members require, who else’s performance is wanting?

What I’ve most been asked is whether this parting of ways was warranted. Two things on that. The public sector under Mr Whitfield’s watch has performed impeccably in the face of the pandemic but progress on his own Framework For Public Sector Reform has been less than brisk.

You could conclude that the one might be influencing the other, but these are intensely political times. Savings, not tax rises, and a demonstrably lean, mean civil service are the order of the day, so it’s cheerie Paul. Had the reform framework been delivered, well, perhaps things would be different.

And this is where it gets more troubling. Public sector reform is notoriously difficult to achieve. Just look at the tangle Jersey got itself into with Charlie Parker. He manifestly knew what he wanted to achieve and why but was ultimately defenestrated by his own politicians.

So who’s the next chief executive of the States of Guernsey? The water here’s muddied too. Civil service recruitment processes are formidable and documented, not least involving something called key criteria. That’s the competencies, skills, qualifications, experiences and attitudes needed for any role and are provided on the job description itself.

Except here, of course, there’s no formal recruitment process because of how the vacancy occurred. My own bet is that Mr Whitfield would not have sought to extend his contract after it expired in a couple of years’ time anyway. No sacking necessary, bouquets and fine words all round. Instead…

So if you’ve recognised a need for change and have brought it about, that’s because you’re clear on the new direction required and who’s best placed to deliver it, right? Ordinarily, I’d say yes but there are some problems with that assessment too.

Jersey recruited Charlie Parker after due process and he and his hand-picked team – hence nervousness at Frossard House about ‘what next?’ – spent months on the equivalent of a mergers and acquisitions due diligence process to work out what reforms were needed.

Yet if P&R really wants swift change, this process does not seem geared to provide it. An interim CEO in place for, say, six months is merely a caretaker and not an agent of reform. Unless ‘interim’ is merely a device for side-stepping normal recruitment processes.

Reliable sources tell me Mr Whitfield’s successor has already been identified, isn’t an established civil servant and is therefore something of an outsider but with a track record in managing change in large organisations.

More on that anon. In the meantime, there’s one facet in this that’s not generally known. When Mr Whitfield was putting his senior management team together to deliver the reform framework, he’d identified a colleague to act as his enforcer, a hand-picked chief operating officer with a reputation for challenging staff and politicians.

A committee president with a personal agenda, however, got wind and objected, threatening to create a media storm, so the proposal was quietly dropped. In hindsight, a bad move. Just the appearance of roughing up the civil service can be enough to preserve careers in these difficult days.

Meanwhile, the unanswered question is whether P&R’s people of action will give their new man – yes, it will be a bloke – time to scope his own reform strategy or just tell him to crack on with Mr Whitfield’s existing framework.

That’s the funny thing about change – sometimes it isn’t.

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