The hunt for a new 'Sir Humphrey'

Dame Gillian Morgan and Rhodri Morgan Dame Gillian Morgan: "neither man nor mandarin".

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".

Betsan Powys Article written by Betsan Powys Betsan Powys Former political editor, Wales

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    ... another directorate is "Health, Social Services and Children" with two departments, "Health, Social Services and Children" and "Public Health and Health Professions".

    Once again, what value does the directorate bring to the taxpayers health service ?

    No criticism of the front line staff that deliver services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Now that is a good question John. I would like to see the results of a poll on that one!
    Possibly A&E doesn't qualify as C S however there is a hierarchy in the health service that is eye watering In terms of size and cost. A&E is of course only a small part.
    I'm not saying we don't need managers and other support staff, I'm saying we don't need as many as we have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I don't think A&E qualifies as civil service !

    Of the 7 directorates "Education and Skills" stands out, begging the question ...

    ... what value the directorate and staff when one considers the obvious failings with education.

    Are the taxpayers receiving good value from the civil servants who man this administration in exchange for their hard earned cash ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    21 22. I would rather suggest support staff are front line staff. The point I'm making isn't targeting these good people It is the grossly over sized management hierarchy and banal over wieght political interference we suffer in Wales.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    #21 Cont
    And, on front-line staff.
    The soldiers on the ground are heroes, but how far would they get when one of our amateur economists (SPAD; at school with David) cuts out all support staff, including the squaddie loading mortar rounds into a 3-tonner in the rain, somewhere in Britain.
    Don't forget the political fate of the originator of 'D-Day Dodger'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #20 Once again, the usual psychobabble about Front Line Staff, with the unspoken idea that everyone else is an expensive mistake.
    The front line staff in A&E wouldn't deliver a thing if support staff didn't wheel the patients in, take X-rays, process blood samples, keep the lights and computers on, keep the place clean, move the drunks on, find the notes and file them etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    8 Insider1
    Sat in her office talking about things going wrong and things going well.

    Going wrong where? Going well where? In the local A&E where front line staff deliver?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Sometimes we forget, those who are the wealth creators, that we need a balanced society. An example is our collective decision to create the social security system (we needed a safety net), to administer this we, through government, employ civil servants and their managers.

    So, with regard to civil service in Wales, can the public judge whether the functions generate a measurable benefit ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    11 + 14
    Boxer. Clearly you work in the Civil Service otherwise you would recognise significant underperformance. You have people with 30 years service; underperforming by any measure; and then pay them a substantial sum to leave the organisation. Only in the Public Sector! Welcome to 2012
    Your last comment sums it up Morgan was a mamager not a leader

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    'Pompous ridiculous and irrelevant' Opinions hardly based in fact however you are entitled to these opinions and no one should deny you that.
    I have challenged the pro lobby here to provide evidence of the positives this banality brings to the people of Wales. I now set you this challenge.
    How do we benefit?
    Lists on here please, or keep your ranting abuse to yourself

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    So the post of Permanent Secretary is a Whitehall appointee? Never! Wales is no longer a "colonial possession", but a nation once again, surely? Must be a simple bureaucratic error, yes, that's it, and luckily spotted by our doughty First Minister in time to make good. Phew!

    Now the Welsh Government can safely go ahead and appoint someone who's going to act in the interests of the Welsh nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    When a civil servant is appointed and says...

    "This isn't about cutting corners or getting away with the bare minimum. We want to change the way we deliver .... so that outcomes are improved."

    ... as he or she axes departments, then we might have cause to celebrate, as the NHS in NW London are proposing

    ... here Sus have wings and can fly !

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    #11 Cont
    After all that, you still have someone who hates you.
    So, you talk to HR and, if they are over 50, you let them walk away with early retirement, a little dignity after 30 years service, no poor publicity and get someone better.
    Reorganisation costs but Ms Morgan did it with minimum blood spilt and reduced costs.
    good management.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    "pompous, ridiculous and irrelevant" ....yes sums up posters like Celtic Fringe perfectly.......completely rejected in last year's referendum on direct lawmaking powers by the people of wales ....keep up the reporting on our burgeoning welsh democracy betsan

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "pompous, ridiculous and irrelevant" ....yes sums up posters like celticrace perfectly.......completely rejected in last year's referendum on direct lawmaking powers by the people of wales ....keep up the reporting on our burgeoning welsh democracy betsan

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    #10 Welcome back from your sleep from 1912. In this year 2012, you can't just sack people because you dislike them or you think they have screwed up, or they are older and slower.
    All large organisations have HR policies. Usually the manager has to make a case for poor performance and there is a hearing.If the case is made, the culprit is offered training to improve, then a period of probation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I doubt that anyone could be worse than Gillian Morgan.
    She has reactively managed the Welsh Civil Service. Betsan you say that she has reduced substantially the staff numbers - well there are still 5500 Welsh Civil Servants. Morgan allowed poor performers to leave the Service with substantial payouts.

    Insider1 is sorry to see her go - what does that tell the rest of us? A weak boss

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The most interesting nugget here is that a Welsh Minister used the word "innovation". I didnt realise that anyone associated with the pompous, ridculous and framkly irrelevant Welsh Government knew such a word existed. Maybe there is hope, but i wouldn't count on it. Keep up the cheerleading Betsan, hand that feeds you cetera cetera

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    get some facts. They do or have here. I sat a couple of months ago (as a non manager) with 4 others (also non managers) in her office talking about the things that were going wrong and that were working well. You find me many bosses who do that and then act on what they hear. Ask about Managing with less!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    That's a very glowing praise for Dame Gill insider1, front line? Which department? What level? If you are close enough to assess the performance of Dame Gill I can't see you being from the front line. Front line staff don't shape what happens, they do!


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