House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Tuesday 18 November 2014

On Tuesday 18 November 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from Rt Hon Andrew Lansley MP, Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, and Mr Frank Doran MP; Michael Whitehouse, Chief Operating Officer, National Audit Office.

Valerie Vaz: I am struck by some of your comments about the workings of the Management Board and the Commission. I am pleased to hear that a new type of working will take place. I hope that that is as a result of some of the evidence that we have had. We have heard that the Management Board and the Commission are dysfunctional. I do not think that the whole Management Board even meets with the Commission. Is that right? What do you see as the purpose of those two boards? How could that be improved?

Mr Doran: As Andrew said, the proposals are presented to us by management and we make a decision. That works effectively. They are the experts in all of the different areas. While we do not meet formally, it is important to recognise that virtually every director has a regular visit or meeting with the Commission at our regular meetings. When they put proposals forward, they come and speak to the papers, so we do have that contact. That is extremely important.

Mr Lansley: I would just add that I think it is important for the Commission to recognise that its job is to set strategy—that can involve taking initiatives—but not to attempt to be, as it were, a court of appeal on the Management Board. We have on occasions in the recent past come awfully close to that, and although we managed to avoid it in the end, it undermines the Executive structure of the House administration if there is a feeling in the House that the Executive are subject to some kind of appeal to the Commission beyond them.

With the Commission and the Management Board, however, the Management Board should feel confident—as I think they expressed in their evidence to you—that they have the political cover for the decisions that they have to make to fulfil the strategic remit that they are given.

Sir George Young: My antennae were not sensitive enough to pick up the tension between the Commission and the Management Board; I felt that it all worked quite well. Whenever the Management Board appeared at the Commission, they were well briefed and very professional. I had not picked up the dysfunctionality that some of your witnesses have referred to.

Valerie Vaz: Who follows up on the work that the Management Board are supposed to be doing on the Commission’s behalf? We heard some evidence that on the website some of work listed has “actioned” against it and that the little points get dealt with but the much bigger issues do not. Who is actually following it up?

Mr Lansley: In the strategic sense, it is the responsibility of the Clerk of the House, as the head of the service, to ensure that the Commission’s decisions are implemented. I am not sure that I felt that that was not the case. It seemed to me that that generally was the case, and that is the Clerk’s responsibility.

Mr Doran: My earlier comments related to my experience in the Administration Committee. We would spend a lot of time on a project that was presented to us. The initiative came from the Management Board or a particular director on the Management Board and we would spend a lot of time looking at it, analysing it, and considering it. We would make a decision and, in quite a significant number of cases, nothing actually happened. I hope that is in the past.

Valerie Vaz: Lord Browne is resigning because he found it hard to make Government like business—that is what he is saying—so we need to clarify what he means. It is interesting what you said, Mr Manzoni, about getting things done. I think a lot of civil servants out there will be very upset by what you say. It is almost implying that nothing got done until you came. I am not quite sure whether your comment was about getting things done, or getting things done quicker.

John Manzoni: I think those are your words, not mine. People are working extraordinarily hard; it is amazing how much does get done. Things could be done even better.

Valerie Vaz: Okay. This is an interesting model that we are looking at in the House of Commons, because it is different from what you have seen, both where you are currently and in the past, even in your statutory organisation. Given that you have had a look at the structure, what lessons do you think we could take away? What lessons could you give us about how we can move on from the structures that we have?

John Manzoni: I must admit that I am no expert in the particular issues that you are wrestling with, but from my read of your inquiry thus far, as I think I described at the beginning, there are lessons around there being two different roles that are trying to be performed. One is about the operation, if I may put it that way—it is more about the operation—and the other is about constitutional advice and has a very different mix.

My first point is that those two things are less likely to be found in an individual perhaps than in two different individuals. In many ways, and provided that it was clear and that both performed their different roles—having been defined clearly—the outcome might be better in two than in one, because that would allow each one to focus on different things.

That is my first observation.

My second observation is that it would be more normal for the Commission—in this case, I think—to be the place on which external non-executives sat, leaving the management board or the one below primarily focused on the execution of the doing. I think we have it different today, as I understand it. Those are just two things. We can have a conversation about which one is on top and all of those things, but in some senses the role at the top is usually performing the primary purpose for which the organisation is destined, and the one below, whether you call it a CEO, a COO or whatever, is getting it done. I offer those thoughts, too.

Valerie Vaz: Ultimately, it is the person who has been elected, would you say, or not?

John Manzoni: Doing?

Valerie Vaz: The final arbiter—the person at the top who makes the final decision for the Commission.

John Manzoni: I am insufficiently qualified to make a statement in this particular context, to be honest. I just do not know.

Michael Whitehouse: Again, it is good that we are in agreement on most of these issues. I would agree as well. I would expect to see non-executive representation on the Commission, although less so on the management board—I forget the exact terminology.

What works well in my organisation—I think it would be mirrored in the House—is the link in your world between the Commission and the management committee. You have to have that link. If you do not, I do not think the organisation works effectively. I would expect the chief executive or Clerk, whatever the post is, to be a member of the Commission and, as the accounting officer, accountable to that Commission and ultimately to the whole House.

The only other thing I would say is that it is always important to look at why an organisation is successful and to maintain that. My original subject was history. The Westminster Parliament has such a strong tradition of strong legislative scrutiny and holding to account, and it is about how you maintain that and grow it for future generations. So I think that is an important issue for me.

There has been a lot of discussion about the operational running of the House. Of course, any future refurbishment will be important, but a lot of people know how to do that and what is very important is maintaining the quality of that scrutiny.

Valerie Vaz: The skills that you mentioned, such as leadership skills, can be grown internally through secondments. Do you feel that there are enough people here who can do that?

John Manzoni: I will give you my observation, although I am not setting out anything that I have not already said. I am actually rather surprised that we do not have the structures inside the civil service today which grow delivery skills. We do not have professions or a structure in the civil service where a 25-year-old can come in and spend a career doing increasingly complex implementation, because actually what we promote is policy skills or private secretary skills or something else. That is the balance that I was talking about.

Valerie Vaz: There is—I think you need to ask the right person. The school of government trains people up, and when I was a civil servant we used to have a skills audit; the key thing is money and training. Mr Whitehouse, can you have skills inside and grow them?

Michael Whitehouse: I started my career in what was the Exchequer and Audit Department in 1979, so I have been around for a long time, but I was fortunate that, during my long career—I trained as an accountant, as everyone does at the National Audit Office—I spent four years in other organisations both in this country and internationally. As Mr Manzoni said, that was not necessarily in implementation skills, but in other skills that I am now able to bring to this role.

I certainly agree that, without sounding arrogant, you have to have a degree of intelligence and an ability to ask the right questions and to understand how organisations operate. The nature of the NAO’s work is quite interesting, because it enables you to look at organisations and what makes them successful and less successful. I have been ably supported to use that skill in the role that I have now. So I do think that you can grow that.

More information on the House of Commons Governance Committee can be found here: