Peter Hoskin

Sainsbury sets out a different way of operating

Sainsbury sets out a different way of operating
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There's much to ponder in Lord Sainsbury's interview with the Times today.  Does the major Labour donor rate Gordon Brown, for instance?  There's enough ambiguity in some of his answers to suggest not.  And will he continue to give money to Labour ahead of the next election?  Again, there's no definite answer - and that could be enough to provoke nervous jitters in Labour HQ.

But the most thought-provoking comments concern the relationship between politicians and the civil service.  Sainsbury is scathing about the "out of date" civil service, which he feels could learn from private sector practices.  Here are some of his key points:

"Ministers and civil servants are, he believes, too locked into their departments. 'Government isn’t joined up because it’s no one’s job to join it up,' he says. 'If you want to have a policy on low-carbon cars, that involves four departments and you end up with 100 people in a room. In business you would appoint a production director to run a project.'

In his view senior civil servants should be blamed for departmental failures. 'It’s an absurdity that a minister who’s been in the department for three months is held responsible if the department loses all the high-security files. He’s probably never run any big organisation,' he says. 'I would give more power to the head of the Civil Service he then becomes accountable in a much clearer way to Parliament for running things properly.'

It is, he thinks, 'very unproductive' to keep changing departmental names and responsibilities. The Prime Minister 'puts things together in a new department on the basis that that will solve the co-ordination problem, the trouble is you open up new ones'.

There are, he adds, 'far too many reshuffles. The average length of time ministers stay in post is about 18 months. In my experience it takes about a year before you really understand all the issues, whose advice to listen to. One of the real bonuses for me was that I did my job for eight years. But I went through five secretaries of state'."

Given how the Tories are working closely with Sainsbury's Institute for Government, you wonder whether they're thinking along similar lines.  You'd certainly imagine so, as many of the Lord's suggestions are sensible and intuitive.  But, either way, one thing's clear: if the next administration hopes to properly implement the transformative policy agenda which will be necessary to deal with Brown's debt crisis, then it will need to reform the very processes and culture of government.