Posts Tagged ‘Public Services and the Welfare State’

Is government fit for purpose? Not with the current structure of departmental boards.

Failures in government policy creation and delivery are often blamed on civil servants. However, the real culprit is self-inflicted governance inadequacy, writes Andrew Kakabadse. He draws on his recent report to explain how the value of departmental boards is downrated because of the poor chairmanship of the Secretary of State.

 The Kakabadse report ‘Is Government Fit for Purpose’ surfaced the critical nature of the relationship between Secretary of State and Permanent Secretary in determining the quality of policy delivery. The investigation challenged the step-by-step, logical nature of public administration thinking and highlighted the idiosyncratic nature of the chemistry factor shaping the relationship between these two critical public service roles. In effect, the Secretary of State liking or disliking the Permanent Secretary shapes how policies are executed. This is particularly the case as the policy process identified emerges as 20% policy creation involving the electorate, parliamentary debate, and being grilled at the despatch box; and 80% policy delivery involving a behind the scenes exercise that ministers drive through, supported by their civil servants.

However, the relationship between minister and civil servant is not smooth. The minister’s exposure and need for urgency (due to their very public accountability) is countered by the civil servants’ evidence-determined shaping of reality of how to make policy work across numerous misalignments of interests in the community. Although both are rightly doing their job, through so doing they find themselves in a relationship of continuous tension, that being between urgency versus reality.

In order to work through such contrasting complexity, the Kakabadse investigation showed the value special advisers and the Departmental Board can play in the effective execution of policy. Yet the investigation also identified problems with the functioning and contribution of the Departmental Board, with the greater majority of interviewees concluding that departmental boards add little value. The reason? Because the Secretary of State is the Chairman. Indeed, numerous non-executive directors disclosed they have hardly met their Chairman. It became clear that fulfilling the duties of Chairman of the Departmental Board was low on the priorities of numerous Secretaries of State. Even when the Secretary of State turned up, instead of leading the governance and oversight of policy delivery and all the parties involved, the board was focussed to examine the particular political perspective that troubled the Secretary of State on that day. Worse still, certain Secretaries of State, as Chair, sacked the whole board and placed their own people.

Pixabay (Public Domain)

Yet at the individual level, external non-executive directors emerged as highly valued. Their advice to the ministerial team and civil servants was rated as highly worthy: their commitment to the Secretary of State was evident and their experience was appreciated even more. The stewardship offered at the level of the individual board member made a difference. Despite over 34% being not paid and the remainder considerably underpaid, the individual non-executive directors’ desire to provide for the sound governance of government was paramount. When asked why such a level of commitment, the answer came back as ‘to give something back’. The sense of public service predominated, especially so because departmental boards are advisory.

Yet despite all the efforts of certain non-executive directors, the overall governance contribution of the board was viewed as inadequate. Whatever individual non-executive directors did, the board as a body could not establish its independence, and the particular agenda of the Secretary of State became the focal point of the governance of government.

The Kakabadse team at Henley Business School has conducted separate studies in order to examine what went wrong with organisations that derailed, typified by Marconi, RBS, HBOS, Carillion, and Kidds Company. Two reasons emerged: the inadequate leadership of the board by the Chair; and the board losing its independence to challenge the CEO and the management team. So many corporate collapses could have been prevented had the board defended their independence and the Chair appropriately led the board to provide challenge and oversight, and particularly hold the CEO to account.

In order to reverse the inadequate governance of government, the report strongly recommended that the Secretary of State stepped down from being Chair of the Departmental Board; in their place, an independent, external Chair should be appointed. In turn, the report emphasised that the Secretary of State should be the Chair of Chairs, drawing together the contribution of the ministerial team, the Permanent Secretary and civil servants, the Special Advisers, and the Departmental Board. The aim is to strengthen the Secretary of State and through so doing have the citizen receive better service from their government.

The reaction to the Kakabadse report to date has been to reject this particular recommendation and continue with the Secretary of State as Chair of the Departmental Board. The logic is that the Secretary of State would be weakened by stepping down and once that happens, the Departmental Board loses all significance. Aside from the fact that departmental boards are already viewed as having little significance, government is the only body in the UK to institutionalise an inadequacy of governance. The collapses of Marconi, HBOS, and other enterprises were down to the poor leadership of the board and it being unable to stand up and challenge the management and their strategy. The lesson is clear: lack of board independence and poor chairmanship are fundamental to governance going wrong.

However, these derailed organisations did not build into the fabric of their governance, poor board leadership, and no board independence. In contrast, the UK government of today is the only institution that is determined to pursue the false belief that the Secretary of State, as Chair of the Departmental Board, provides sound governance oversight. To ignore governance is one thing, as witnessed in the case of past corporate collapses. To bypass governance altogether because the Secretary of State feels sensitive about the subject is something else. Today’s inadequate governance of government encourages the unfortunate scapegoating of civil servants by the Minister and allows the unsubstantiated complaint to take hold that civil servants pursue a different direction to their political master.

Sound Government is central to the future of the UK. It is deeply troublesome that this vital institution is the only one in the country to have created a governance that has structure, but no substance. The Windrush generation and the Amber Rudd resignation fiasco is simply a warning of policy distortions that are yet to come.


About the Author

Andrew Kakabadse is Professor of Governance and Leadership at Henley Business School. He consults and lectures in the UK, Europe, United States, Asia, China, Japan, Russia, Georgia, the Gulf States and Australia. He is currently embarked on a major £2 million global study of boardroom effectiveness and governance practice, with the participation of a number of governments including British Ministers of State. His top team database covers 17 nations and thousands of private and public sector organisations.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The problem with ‘raising aspiration’ strategies: social mobility requires more than personal ambitions

The perceived lack of aspiration among young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds is used as a convenient explanation for the stagnating levels of social mobility. As a result, the ‘raising of aspirations’ has become the focus of government strategy over the past 20 years. Konstanze Spohrer explains why this has the effect of portraying educational success and opportunity as a matter of attitudinal change.

‘Aspiration’ has been a buzzword in political rhetoric for the last two decades. In the 2000s, New Labour rediscovered the expression ‘poverty of aspiration’ – coined some decades earlier by Aneurin Bevan – in order to explain lower educational outcomes among white working-class youth. At the same time, the Labour government initiated a range of projects in order to ‘raise aspirations’, most prominently the AimHigher programme which aimed at making university a more attractive choice for those from underrepresented groups.

While the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government discontinued central funding for these initiatives, devolving responsibility to the local level, the notion of ‘aspiration’ has remained popular. As Prime Minister, David Cameron had called for Britain to become an ‘Aspiration Nation’ – a country in which individual ambition is prized highly and social mobility contributes to securing success in a globally competitive economy.

The idea of lack of ‘aspiration’ has been a convenient explanation for the persisting gap in educational outcomes for young people from different socio-economic background and for the stagnating levels of social mobility. As a number of commentators have pointed out, this diagnosis puts forward a ‘deficit view’ of particular groups, such as the idea that working-class culture and aspirations are inherently inferior. It has been argued that the expression ‘poverty of aspiration’ blames individuals for injustices which are caused by structural inequalities in the labour market, housing, and education, and which have been exacerbated by austerity measures since 2010.

Aspiration as requirement for the ‘responsible’ citizen

Arguably, the preoccupation with aspiration fits into a neoliberal mantra of individual responsibility. The idea of individual responsibility is, of course, also rooted in the reality of rising levels of poverty and precarious living circumstances resulting from decades of economic liberalisation and the erosion of social protection and welfare provision. ‘Aspiration’ – in the sense of the will and ceaseless effort – to ‘better oneself’ – becomes a key characteristic of the ideal, ‘deserving’ neoliberal citizen.

In our research, we examined this link between neoliberal forms of government aspiration and the individual. We were interested what the focus on aspiration means for how a population is governed – what the philosopher Michel Foucault calls ‘governmentality’ – and the impact on those young people whose aspirations are meant to be raised. Analysing policy documents, published between 2003 and 2011 we asked how particular groups of (young) people are described, how they are encouraged to transform themselves, and who they are encouraged to become.

Targeting the attitudes of young working-class people

The policy documents analysed embrace the logic that Britain’s economic success requires harnessing the talent of those sections in society whose potential is currently ‘untapped’. In order to achieve this, educational outcomes, in particular among working-class young people, need to be improved, which, again, requires higher individual aspiration. Conversely, aspiration promises to be a remedy for a range of societal problems that hinder economic prosperity, such as intergenerational poverty and unemployment; crime; and negative attitudes towards education. The documents analysed identify a lack of aspiration in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and their inhabitants who are described as isolated, immobile, restricted in their horizons, and resistant to change. The documents portray the young people who grow up in these communities as ‘potentially successful’ in terms of educational achievement, but held back by multiple ‘barriers’, in particular attitudinal and cultural ones, such as low aspiration, motivation, and confidence.

The documents identify several strategies in order to help young people overcome the attitudinal and cultural restrictions that obstruct their educational and societal advancement. Most of these initiatives focus on encouraging young people to apply for university or pursue professional careers, supported by better information, guidance, and inspiration through university visits or mentors. Some projects go further and aim to achieve attitudinal and behavioural change in young people aiming to develop young people’s future orientation (‘ambition’ or ‘optimism’); their self-concept (‘self-esteem’ or ‘confidence’); and their motivation (‘persistence’ or ‘resilience’).

Drawing together these findings, we argue that aspiration does not tackle social disadvantage in itself, but finds the remedy in preparing young people to cope with and overcome structural disadvantage. The neoliberal demand to become adaptable and open to ‘change’ is exacerbated for disadvantaged people who are expected to work on themselves in order to improve their dispositions and attitudes. There is a marked expectation on young people from disadvantaged communities to be ‘mobile’ – both geographically, socially and, as a prerequisite, in terms of their attitudes and behaviours. As such, young people from these disadvantaged communities are seen as agents in their lives, but at the same time, they also bear the burden of social change.

Raising aspiration and new ways of governing

The portrait of an aspirational citizen in political rhetoric and interventions resonates with wider neoliberal conceptions of the flexible, entrepreneurial individual. Raising aspiration strategies can be seen as an example of the tendency in contemporary societies to govern through expecting people to govern themselves, for example by trying to change attitudes and desires. Psychological knowledge and techniques are becoming more important in policymaking, evident for example in the application of ‘nudge’ and in the promotion of happiness and wellbeing techniques in spheres of public life.

While we can observe a general intensification of self-governance, our analysis shows that a distinction is made between those who can be trusted to exercise their freedom appropriately and those who need to be more tightly governed. For young people from less well-off backgrounds, social mobility through higher levels of education is presented as a promise but also as a duty. The message to young people is that unless they embrace ‘higher aspirations’ they will be condemned to a life in poverty. As a consequence, the responsibility of tackling poverty and disadvantage is shifted from political and economic actors to young people.

While ‘raising aspiration’ may be experienced as empowering by some, it is also a potential burden. For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieving educational success and social mobility requires more than higher ambitions. Unless we see a redistribution of economic and educational resources, we perpetuate what Laurent Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’: promoting fantasies of upward social mobility without providing the actual possibilities to achieve them. Furthermore, there is a need to rethink the narrow conception of aspiration as individualised economic success and support young people in developing a range of visions for what it means to lead a good life.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The Journal of Education Policy.

About the Author

Konstanze Spohrer is Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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