On August 13, 2014
In Political Culture, The Public Sector
black box, culture, David Colander, Frances Fitzgerald, Guerin, Margaret Archer, Purcell, Ronald Kupers, Shatter, silo culture, Sloterdijk, Travers report, Wright report
Hi Frank – I found the report succinct if a little taciturn, and slightly unconventional insofar as the detailed recommendations formed by far the largest portion, and the findings and evidence on which they are formulated are in contrast quite brief – a consequence of the short time-scale the authors might justifiably argue – but it nonetheless raised a lot of questions in my mind about how the conclusions were distilled from the evidence. And as you say some of the ideas that informed the recommendations are worthy of further exploration – particularly ‘silo culture’ (where have I heard that before…) and I assume the belief that top-down systems were inhibiting more cross-departmental work. The arguments for reform of ‘culture, leadership and management’ at least depart from the standard recommendations to address ‘governance’ and ‘accountability’, but as you point out, suggesting that the Department is somehow remiss in achieving what is perceived to be best management practice does not do justice (no pun intended) to wider changes to the context in which the department operates. It occurred to me that there must be some disappointment amongst the committed reformers of the 1990s who sought to have much more strategic thinking in government departments only to find that some twenty years after the launch of the much vaunted Strategic Management Initiative, it has been determined to be curiously absent in one of the key departments of state.
Of particular interest was the agencies issue. That its relationship with its agencies somehow ceased to function productively was arguably not a problem uniquely faced by the Justice Department – this research report from a decade ago suggested a government wide issue and found that the Justice Department had the largest number of ‘non duplicate function’ agencies when compared to others, as well as the greatest variety in agency types (and one must also presume internal governance arrangements). This was outwardly reflected in the shifting names of the Department from the early 1990s – having been simply the Department for Justice from 1924-1993, it became the subject of considerable bureau-shuffling as equality, law reform, human rights and even childcare issues have come and in some cases disappeared from under its aegis, one might assume leaving their own organisational legacies. All the while, what has long seemed to be the most likely candidate for a separate agency (remember the 1985 Whitaker Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System which made a strong case for ‘a separate executive agency or board’ to manage the Prison Service?) has curiously remained firmly within the Department structure. The suggestion that a more uniform and
command-like structure for the department’s agencies might sound appealing, but
the overwhelming evidence is that trying to shoehorn agencies into – dare I say – silo-like reporting and accountability structures has not been successful anywhere. In the UK, this is formally recognised and agency management or ‘sponsorship’ is now regarded as a specialist skill for civil servants to develop.
Seeking a means to best align incentives, structures and cultures of authority in order to achieve critical tasks, especially those that cross organisational boundaries, cannot rest within the administrative system or individual departments. The Irish civil service has routinely proved itself very capable of achieving cross-organisational objectives once a political priority has been set. This report should prompt some more detailed consideration about how best the achievement of such objectives can be motivated without the need for crisis-inspired reviews.