Sir Peter Kemp: Civil servant who through the implementation of 'Next Steps' brought profound change to Whitehall

Peter Kemp was instrumental in profoundly changing the organisation of the Civil Service. He was an outstanding and lateral-thinking administrator who made a reality of the ideas set out in the Prime Minister's Efficiency Unit's 1987 report Next Steps, including distinguishing between – and then reconnecting through a management framework – policy objectives and executive delivery.

Never quite the typical Permanent Secretary, Kemp bought into the idea that managers needed more scope to manage. His project was responsible for significant change in how civil servants go about their work, for opening up the Civil Service to more outsiders and to public scrutiny, and for breaking up central rules. An intense burst of project activity between 1988 and 1992 paved the way for the Citizen's Charter and public service agreements. The Next Steps ideas, strongly underpinned by a focus on numbers, performance targets and value for money, remain influential.

Kemp continued to believe that government needed further change in management and leadership. He identified the translation of ideas into practice as an area of weakness, although it was one in which he had himself demonstrated outstanding achievement and success prior to his departure from Whitehall in 1992.

Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister had appointed Peter Kemp to be Project Manager (and Second Permanent Secretary at the Office of the Minister for the Civil Service) in February 1988. The task was to implement the Efficiency Unit's report Improving Management in Government: the Next Steps. This recommended that "to the greatest extent practicable", executive functions of government should be done in managerially independent units – executive agencies – established under a chief executive who would be personally responsible within a framework of policy objectives and resources set by the minister.

Many saw it as breaking up departments. Certainly, Next Steps involved interfering in existing Whitehall relationships and structures. There were concerns about politicising the Civil Service and suspicions from the unions that it was about privatisation.

Unlike his Permanent Secretary peers, Kemp had not been to university – and he was an accountant. He had joined the Civil Service late, after working in the private sector. He was fascinated by Whitehall and achieved great success there but, perhaps as something of an outsider, was the more restless to change it. That he succeeded so fully is, those who worked with him say, a result of passion, restless energy and drive, commitment, enthusiasm, a profound sense of duty, and sheer, dogged determination.

Subsequent to his departure, the project exceeded the reluctantly offered target of three-quarters of civil servants working under Next Steps arrangements, ranging in size from the very large (the Benefits Agency, revenue offices, the Employment Service) to the very small (the QEII Conference Centre). This was a high-water mark but the ideas, of managing policy and delivery work differently, publishing targets and service standards, recruiting professional skills where needed, and greater accountability, are now taken for granted.

Edward Peter Kemp was born in Haslemere, Surrey in 1934 and educated at Millfield School and Dartmouth Naval College. A promising career in the Navy was cut short following a bout of rheumatic fever contracted after he had been lining the route of the Coronation in 1953. Instead, he became articled to a firm of chartered accountants.

In 1961 he married Enid van Popta and shortly afterwards they left the UK for a three-year posting in British Guiana (now Guyana). This was followed by Paris, and the acquisition of a colourful vocabulary of blue-collar French.

On return to the UK with their growing family, in 1967 Kemp joined the Civil Service as a direct-entry Principal. In the Department of Transport he worked on investment appraisals, including the proposed Channel Tunnel project. Promoted to the Treasury in 1973, Kemp made rapid progress and earned a reputation as a creative thinker, an administrator with an accountant's grasp of figures and, with responsibility for public-sector pay, a determined negotiator. He started the process of breaking down the single Civil Service bargaining structure. By 1983 he was a Deputy Secretary.

On moving to the other end of the Treasury building, Kemp ran the Next Steps project with a small, quite junior, close-knit team. It suited the work. Team members were out and about. They were confident that they would have Kemp's backing no matter how many toes they trod on, or whose. As project manager he was ready to be confrontational when necessary. Perseverance and the ability to see through complex problems were skills he exhibited and set store by in others. He preferred to work in the engine room, as he put it, driving the work forward with a sense of urgency and excitement. He had a low opinion of senior officers who simply worked through their in-tray, "handling things", as he described it.

Next Steps involved minimum legislation, but the 1990 Government Trading Act provided for agencies to be able to meet greater demand for their services, and delegation to agencies of greater responsibility for setting their own terms and conditions of service was eventually agreed, building on the Treasury work on Civil Service pay. There was agreement to recognise chief executives formally as agency accounting officers.

Kemp remained insistent that the framework for each agency should be tailored and bespoke, that there was "no blueprint or mould". Experience was that the time devoted to the preparation of an agency had a strong bearing on its subsequent success – and as the project grew, there was less time. There was criticism about the policy/delivery split on the Prison Service Agency and that the Child Support Agency had been launched too early in the development of its policies.

Kemp recognised that Next Steps needed publicity but was concerned that it might be misrepresented or pinned down to particular commitments which would constrain what was essentially a constantly developing process. So he was selective about journalists and academics but accepted help from those whom he regarded as supportive of the project. Kemp developed a strong relationship with the Treasury and Civil Service Committee under its chair, Giles Radice. This committee and the Public Accounts Committee played a constructive and participative role in increasing parliamentary and Whitehall understanding. Kemp also gathered together and relied for support on a group of Whitehall officials and others whom he referred to as the "Friends" and built up the Agency Chief Executives into an active network.

This conscious gathering of support reflected the fact that the achievement of significant change was not without personal cost. Kemp's main focus continued to be Next Steps itself, which he regarded as more fundamental than the later Citizen's Charter (although that reached out beyond the civil service, to health, for example).

In 1992, Kemp was forced to leave his post after the appointment of William Waldegrave as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Kemp did not comment publicly, but said privately that he quite accepted the system in which a minister who found it difficult to work with a Permanent Secretary could ask for him to be moved. He was disappointed, however, to leave Whitehall altogether. His four-year "revolution" period had achieved huge changes and he had fulfilled his remit.

After he left the Civil Service, Peter Kemp worked on in accountancy and public administration, serving six years as an Audit Commissioner and devoting the same tireless energy to a charitable organisation, the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management, to help establish basic systems and expertise in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. He became a respected commentator on public affairs, on radio in particular, with a recognisable torrent of words and insight. There were articles and publications, arguing that further radical change was needed in the machinery and senior management of government. Kemp took part in briefings for the Labour administration-in-waiting, though he did not say whether this was in the guise of a typical mandarin.

Colleagues knew Peter as engaging and kind, with a quick and restless intellect, together with considerable humanity. It was a privilege to work with him. He was for many years treasurer of his church and a governor of Millfield. Latterly, he spent more time in Sandgate on the Kent coast he loved, and in London with his wife, children and grandchildren, and with his substantial library.

Jeremy Cowper

Edward Peter Kemp, civil servant: born Haslemere, Surrey 10 October 1934; Principal, then Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Transport 1967-73; Assistant Secretary, HM Treasury 1973-78, Under-Secretary 1978-83, Deputy Secretary 1983-88; Second Permanent Secretary and Next Steps Project Manager, Office of the Minister for the Civil Service (later Office of Public Service and Science) 1988-92; Commissioner, Audit Commission 1993-99; CB 1988, KCB 1991; married 1961 Enid van Popta (three sons, one daughter); died London 24 June 2008.

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