Whitehall chief seeks links with academics

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Indy Politics
WHITEHALL should have closer links with academics, Sir Robin Butler, head of the Home civil service said, in what appeared to be a bridge-building exercise after the tensions of the Thatcher years.

In a lecture to the public administration committee of the Joint Universities Council in York last night, Sir Robin argued that academics had contributed little to 'the new public management' of devolved responsibility, Next Steps agencies, more competitive tendering, and a more consumer- oriented approach from public services.

He said that had come about because of the pressures faced by public services within available resources as the demand for more individually tailored services grew and the 'economy of scale' philosophy of the 1960s had encountered disillusion.

The ideas, however, had come from the private sector and consultancy, not from academics. 'Marks & Spencer have become better known in the civil service than Marx and Engels,' he said.

But while few academics could claim credit for the new public management, 'there is plenty of scope for comment on how the results are turning out, on the potential problems and challenges, on the next set of goals we should adopt', and how the forces unleashed can be controlled. Despite the use of private-sector techniques, Sir Robin stressed that 'inescapable differences' in aims, values, objectives, and accountability remained between public and private sectors.

He said the 'core values' of the cvil service must not be damaged. It was important to show that neither modernisation, nor efficiency, 'nor even the phenomenon of a single political party being in power over a long period' required the discarding of the lasting asset of an apolitical and impartial civil service of integrity.

While arguing that the links were stronger than sometimes perceived, Sir Robin added that he could not say he felt satisfied about the relationship between academia and the civil service. 'For many civil servants and academics with an interest in aspects of government, I suspect that the links are not as strong as they should be in the national interest,' he said.

Permanent secretaries had already been required to 'adopt' a number of higher education institutions, and the dispersal of the civil service and creation of executive agencies provided more opportunities for links at lower levels, through consultancy, staff exchanges, attachments and secondments.

'Rising stars' in both sectors should be encouraged to meet, and ways of persuading more academic staff to undertake part-time public appointments were needed. More access to 'closed' public papers could help as part of the open government initiative.

Sir Robin said what was needed was 'a more creative and sympathetic, and less mutually grudging relationship between Whitehall and academia than I have sometimes detected in recent years'.