New report finds government departmental boards held back by bad management of & poor leadership by Secretaries of State (sub-optimal corporate governance undermines policy delivery)

THE vast majority of the population has suffered the results of poor government administration in this country for far too long. Whether it is the failure to investigate the consequences of Brexit by any government department or the failure by the Department of Health to improve standards in the health service or the failure of the Department of Transport regarding the recent rail fiasco (just to mention a few examples), the public are fed up with the situation.


An independent report by Henley Business School sheds some light on why this is and, more importantly, what can be done about it. This welcome and timely new report into the Civil Service finds that injecting real world business savvy into the administration and marketisation of public services is held back by the lack of corporate governance understanding, business smarts and experience of most of the current crop Secretaries of State.


The report notes that civil servants and certain ministers consider that the Secretary of State has become too ‘managerial, giving too much time and attention to operational management matters. Involvement with the appointment of civil servants and being chair of departmental boards are repeatedly identified as time unproductively spent, thus undermining effective policy delivery.


For basic corporate governance reasons, most government departmental boards are less productive than they could be. The prime reason is the poor leadership from the chair of the board, namely, the Secretary of State. The quality of chairmanship is also reported as varying substantially. Certain non-executive directors (NEDs) report that they have hardly met their Secretary of State. Others state that the Secretary of State pursues their political agenda and attends less to the board oversight, advisory or support function. Equally the comment was offered that certain Secretaries of State do not seem interested in the work and contribution of the departmental board. Certain NEDs even questioned the value provided by departmental boards.


“The effectiveness of the board seems to rely largely on the degree of seriousness with which

the Secretary of State takes it.” Director General


“By far the best boards I have seen are the ones that have an independent chair. These are

really few, but their advantage is that they are not exposed to the political agenda and whims

of the Secretary of State but enable the process of policy delivery and give better service to the

minister.” Chair, Departmental Board


Corporate governance expert and sponsor of the Kakabadse Report into Civil Service effectiveness, Gerry Brown notes, “Report researcher and author Professor Andrew Kakabadse understandably recommends the appointment of independent chairs for government departmental boards to replace their current supervision by the Secretaries of State. Professor Kakabadse correctly states that this important change would, nevertheless, not completely emasculate the parameters of leadership and influenced enjoyed by Secretaries of State since how often and how much the Secretary of State wishes to address and work with the board will continue to remain their prerogative.”