The hunt for a new 'Sir Humphrey'
- 21 June 2012
- From the section Wales politics
I have a vivid memory of the announcement that Dame Gillian Morgan was to become the new Permanent Secretary of what was then the Welsh Assembly Government.
The lobby was herded up to Rhodri Morgan's room on the fifth floor of Ty Hywel. As we entered, the First Minister and Dame Gillian were sitting on the sofa talking animatedly. Another Morgan? "No relation", they joked.
Sitting bolt upright on a nearby high-backed chair was the outgoing Perm, Sir Jon Shortridge. He was going to spend the following few weeks like a lemming heading towards a cliff he said, then "leave it all behind". I wrote at the time that he was retiring, meaning reserved as well as leaving his post. It wasn't meant at all as a criticism. It was just how he'd come across to us as journalists - getting on with job, avoiding the limelight.
Dame Gillian's fuchsia jacket and Sir John's pinstripe suit - there couldn't have been a more visible changing of the guard at the top of the Welsh civil service. Here was someone, said Rhodri Morgan, who was "neither man nor mandarin". We were told to expect a new, warmer, more engaged approach, both within and without government.
Four years on, as Dame Gillian announces her retirement, how much has changed? Remember, she took over at exactly the time that the Welsh budget, along with the rest of the UK was about to face the severest cuts since devolution, and by a long way.
The size of the Welsh civil service has been reduced substantially, largely through natural wastage - it seems from outside at least, the process has been handled pretty adeptly though doubtless from the inside, the view may be different. But organisational change is time-consuming and difficult, and it's not hard to see how a government could turn in on itself during a period like this.
However, for some time it's been clear that the top of the Welsh government has not been the happiest of ships, particularly since the last Assembly election in May 2011. "Fractious" is one word that has been used to me for relations between some ministers and civil servants.
Indeed it's been whispered, only quietly I have to say, about the relationship between Carwyn Jones and Dame Gillian herself.
The former Labour minister Andrew Davies wrote a very pointed article for the IWA's Agenda magazine this spring entitled "Tackling Wales' Sir Humphreys". His views on the Welsh Civil Service are well known and much of the article criticised the hierarchical organisation, lack of innovation and failure to manage risk of the civil service as a whole.
But consider the following quote from the article: "Presently senior civil service management is inwardly rather than externally focused, with the bulk of their time taken up with internal organisational matters."
And then the Welsh Labour response to it: "We agree with much of what is expressed in this article - which sets out an agenda for change that we are already working towards."
You could read as much, or as little, into that as you want in terms of Labour's feelings towards the way things were run under Dame Gillian's leadership.
The question now is who will take her place - and by what process that person will be chosen. There's been a growing feeling in recent years that the situation where the Welsh Government's permanent secretary is chosen by Whitehall, rather than in Wales, is anomalous, particularly given the greater powers now wielded by the Assembly.
The 2011 Labour manifesto contained the following commitment:
"We believe it is anomalous that the Assembly Government senior civil service is not accountable to Welsh Ministers and that after the first decade of devolution it is appropriate that the current civil service system be reviewed. We will therefore review and seek realignment of the governance and performance of the Assembly Government civil service, better to reflect the developing requirements of devolution whilst remaining part of the Home Civil Service."
If there was ever a good time to implement that, right now must be a pretty strong candidate.
Currently, the First Minister is "consulted" over the appointment of a Permanent Secretary but it remains a firmly Whitehall decision on the actual appointment. Welsh Government sources say that conversations will take place over the next few days with regard to the process, so it will be interesting to see whether there is any change in the way in which Dame Gillian's successor will be appointed.
Of course, the level of Welsh involvement in that process will be key in terms of who actually gets the top job. Internally within the Welsh Government, any realistic candidate would have to come from within the top layer of management, the Director Generals.
What are we hearing? That the leading candidate would probably be Emyr Roberts, currently Director General at Education and Skills. He's been a senior civil servant in several departments since 1997 and is seen as a good operator and adept at getting close to ministers.
Michael Hearty's role as Director General at Finance means he has a cross-government policy knowledge and has Whitehall experience, while James Price is highly regarded as the top man at Business and Enterprise, but is young and relatively new to the job, having spent most of his career in economic development.
The voices urging external candidates for the post accept that Dame Gillian's background outside the civil service may have hampered her as much as helped her in reality, but say the key qualification for the job should be the ability to administer a complex organisation effectively.
In relative terms, the Welsh Government is not a particularly large organisation but it is complex and despite work to push cross-cutting policy agendas, many departments still operate within policy silos.
Would a former top business figure - say Peter Griffiths from the Principality, or someone with a strong background in academia and public service reform like Professor Sir Adrian Webb, currently a non-executive director of the Welsh Government - bring outside expertise and ethos despite having no civil service experience?
It's highly unlikely that the Whitehall mandarinate is going to be willing to give Carwyn Jones a free hand in appointing Dame Gillian's successor anyway, which means there is always the potential for the UK Civil Service to install one of their own to keep the First Minister in order, as they might see it, in terms of his attacks on the UK Government.
So will Carwyn Jones's government follow up on their manifesto pledge? If not, they can always employ Sir Humphrey and his friends' famous four stage strategy:
"In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we "can" do.
Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done ... but it's too late now".