Men of Secrets IV

John Rentoul

turnbull 300x195 Men of Secrets IVTwo more interviews with former Cabinet Secretaries have been added to the Number 10 website created by the Mile End Group. As with the previous three, that with Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary 2002-05 (pictured), is full of interest. I shall come to Gus O’Donnell later.

Too Late for Iraq

Turnbull started as Cabinet Secretary two weeks before the publication of the dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, as responsibility for intelligence was shifted from Cabinet Secretary to a new Intelligence and Security Co-ordinator, David Omand.

Lord Turnbull: By the time I came in in September ‘02, I formed the conclusion that basically the die was cast.

Lord (Peter) Hennessy: I think you were right weren’t you?

LT: All the way through there was a time lag between what the Prime Minister had agreed with the Americans, what he was going to do, and what he was telling his Cabinet colleagues and what he was telling the Civil Service.

LH: So the Crawford meeting with George Bush previous April –

LT: He had one in April and then there’s the famous, there is a conversation that they have on the phone in July, and its pretty clear that by then we were engaged in serious military planning. Clearly the process of diplomacy to make this possible still needed to be gone through, the first and the second resolutions. But the idea that…

LH: …of the United Nations.

LT: …if the Americans were going to do this, the British were going to be with them, I think that was pretty much settled. And the dossier, the infamous dossier, appeared about two weeks after I got there. I was… spent almost all my time on other things, I never got into that dossier at all. So I think…

LH: Do you think you should have done with a fresh mind? And you’ve got a naturally sceptical turn of intellect, which is what a civil servant should have.

LT: I don’t think the Prime Minister was interested in fresh minds by that stage. I think that in the questioning I got at Chilcot, particularly from Laurie Freedman, he seemed to think that I could step out of the road and say, ‘Hold on!’, you know, ‘Shouldn’t we stop this juggernaut?’. I think the juggernaut was well and truly rolling by then.

What the Chilcot inquiry might say

Turnbull expects the Chilcot inquiry to repeat the Butler report criticism of Blair for “streamlining” traditional Cabinet committee procedure, but doubts that politicians will listen.

LT: There was a very particular style by which the Prime Minister wanted to run this [the Iraq war]. And it wasn’t a traditional Cabinet Office style. I made two appearances before Chilcot. The second one was on the same morning as Richard Wilson [Cabinet Secretary 1998-2002] and we covered some pretty similar ground and what between us we were able to demonstrate was that this style of working was not a bad habit that the Blair group slipped in to. It was a quite conscious decision. There are things they had written in advance or reported ex-post that they had been thinking, that the Civil Service process was too bureaucratic, you can see it in all the newspapers today. And they wanted something more streamlined.

LH: There’s dangers in that?

LT: Absolutely, yes. And when you have an incident, like the row with the BBC, David Kelly…

LH: The Hutton Inquiry, yes.

LT: …very, very little was written down. And the one person that managed to construct a narrative for this and demonstrate that there was some rational purpose behind what the government had done was David Omand [Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator 2002-05]. None of the other participants were remotely interested.

LH: And he’d taken a note for his own purposes. He wasn’t a proper note-taker was he?

LT: Or else he’d done it reconstructed from his own memory, yeah.

LH: Do you regret that… maybe this is a question I shouldn’t ask you but do you think you actually should have said: ‘Wait a minute this isn’t the way to do it’?

LT: I think that, they had their particular way of doing it. I don’t think they were particularly interested in what the Cabinet Secretary thought on this.

LH: Well I think they should’ve been Andrew, but that is not for me to say. I’m here to ask the questions not to pontificate!

LT: But I don’t think even in the period when Richard Wilson was Cabinet Secretary I don’t think he was involved to the extent that he might have been in earlier times.

LH: I’m not a betting man but I think once Chilcot has reported, in the future Cabinet Secretaries will be deeply involved in all that. I’d bet a bit of money on that.

LT: Well I think Chilcot will say that they should be, but whether they will be history will tell us.

Knights and Knaves

Turnbull was chosen as Cabinet Secretary mainly because Tony Blair thought he would improve public service delivery. In his interview, he cites the analysis of Julian Le Grand, an academic who served as a special adviser to the Prime Minister 2003-05, whose Of Knights and Knaves is one of the best theoretical analyses of public service reform.

LT: What relationship do you establish with professionals? Do you treat them as Knights, who will do the right and serve their people because that’s what they believe they are there to do? Or do you treat them as Knaves who have a great deal of self-interest? And I think that by ‘97 the Knave theory was probably in the ascendency and recognising that doctors, policeman, civil servants even…

LH: Yes, civil servants come into the Knave category with some Secretaries of State don’t they? Yes.

LT: …many can find characteristics but definitely had own agendas and own interests. And left to themselves, have the educationalists delivered a top-class education system in this country? No. Left to themselves, have the doctors produced a top-class health service? The answer was: it was pretty good but it was capable of improvement. For example, the model of the doctor’s surgery where he sits in his office which is usually where you’re registered near your home and you go to visit him in his place of work at times that he or she dictates. That’s a case where they basically decide for themselves on what the right mode and standard of service is. And that needed to be challenged.

LH: You believe in the Knave theory then do you, by and large?

LT: No I believe I’m somewhere in the spectrum, but I definitely do not believe in the Knight theory. I think all these suppliers of public services have their own vested interest. They want, they want to deliver a good service, but very often if they want change they want someone else to do the changing and they’ll stay with their, in their particular comfort zone.

LH: But there are Knightly elements, I mean you do believe in the public service impulse don’t you?

LT: … Both elements are present but don’t be starry eyed that left to themselves you can give a hundred plus billion a year to the medical profession and say, ‘Do the best that you can with it’, because they won’t necessarily produce the answer, or they won’t necessarily produce the change that you need.

PM’s Delivery Unit versus the Treasury

Turnbull is surprisingly sceptical about the success of the Delivery Unit which, under Sir Michael Barber 2001-05, tried to focus public services on measurable outputs.

LT: Well, I have to admit… I didn’t invent delivery. I think delivery had contested paternity. The Treasury will say that they created this concept of the public service agreements, that they had the comprehensive spending reviews, ‘Here’s your money’, and when you got your brown envelope from Gordon Brown saying, ‘Here’s your money’, there was a whole list of, ‘and here’s what you are expected to deliver for it, and here’s the huge number of reviews that you’ve got to undertake’, and so on. A rival version of this was developed in Number Ten. It started, this was under Michael
Barber the President of the Delivery Unit –

LH: Tony Blair’s Head of the Delivery Unit, yes.

LT: He ran in effect a pilot project for this in the Department of Education working with David Blunkett where certain aspects of the education system were specifically targeted – numeracy and literacy – and delivery plans were created to improve that. And it had, for a while, I think it had an effect a bit. It didn’t, it didn’t last and it wasn’t quite enough. And these two systems for a time – there was a competition. Gordon Brown was very worried that if you commit yourself to deliver x, the Delivery Unit would come along to the Prime Minister and say, ‘We’re falling behind schedule, you must get more money out of Gordon Brown to get us back on schedule.’

To be fair to Michael Barber, but it is also a shortcoming I think of the system, there is not a single pound sign in any Delivery Unit document. They were entirely about outcomes or intermediate outcomes. We want to reduce street crime or we want to raise… reduce asylum applications and increase asylum repatriations so that they reach a crossover and you produce a plan to do that and if things fell behind schedule Michael did not go to the Treasury to ask for more money. He asked for a revision of the plan. And these two things then proceeded to coalesce and the Delivery Unit was then placed where I think it really belongs which is as part of the public expenditure side, the public expenditure side…

LH: The Treasury.


Turnbull regards the professionalisation of some of the functions of the Civil Service as his lasting legacy.

LT: The mandarin class are basically recruited to be policy advisers, first of all policy advisers and managers of government process. What then happens is that the HR director or the director of property or the director of finance is someone drawn out of that class, very often someone who is not actually thriving very much as a policy analyst is then taken on and put in to one of these functions. Or occasionally – of course its good for them – as Robin Butler did at the Treasury, you say, ‘Well make him the establishment officer because it is all part of his kind of life’s training.’ What didn’t happen was, you’ll say, well we want, if you have a fully, really well functioning organisation, the policy function has got to be top class, it’s got to be based on proper evidence and challenge.

But all the supporting services have got to be equally good and so the people running finance have got to be more professional, the people running procurement or managing projects or HR likewise. And round Whitehall a number of units were created in order to be the central point at which this development of professional skills could take place. Because you couldn’t do it everywhere you would spread yourself too thinly.

So we had what was called, was originally called the Office of the e-Envoy. This was a rather hubristic name, because it implied that we know the truth we were going to tell you benighted people out there that the e-era has come, whereas actually they’d got into the e-era before we had. So it eventually became the Office of the Chief Information Officer for Government. The Office of Government Commerce
which was to create a centre of expertise on procurement but also to take over centrally the procurement of some, of some major categories, energy or negotiating the big IT suppliers. The shareholder executive and partnerships UK, and maybe there was one more of these than we actually needed but I think that, plus this initiative called professional skills for government was a very important way of raising the skills not just in the traditional mandarin Whitehall area but the skills across the whole, the whole of the government departments.

Previous blog posts in this series here.

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  • Pacificweather

    It is interesting to compare Lord Adonis’s view, when special advisor for education, of the civil service with the civil servant’s view of the special advisor. In his case, the special advisor had to train the civil servants to get things done but, in the case of Lord Turnbull, the civil servant thinks they are better at “getting out of a hole”.

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