Master and commander

Andy Westwood salutes Sir Alan Langlands, a steady hand guiding the sector through the stormy waters of frenzied coalition reform

March 29, 2012

Credit: Elly Walton

Sir Gus, now Lord, O'Donnell, when he stood down as Cabinet secretary at the end of last year, complained that politicians focused too much on legislation and White Papers and not enough on managing and delivering change. He had learned this while serving the different demands and reform agendas of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

In 2010, the coalition - like every new government - arrived with a series of priorities for reform. Its speedy timetable for changes to the UK's health, welfare and higher education sectors owed something to Blair's autobiographical admission that he regretted not using the political capital of his first term in office to drive deeper and more radical public sector reform. This, combined with the challenge of reducing the national deficit, meant that the coalition was going to take some big decisions rapidly.

Two years on, the haste to drive major change has damaged the political capital of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The health and social care bill in particular has proved particularly tortuous for both parties.

But higher education reform - still without any sign of legislation - appears to be on a much more stable footing. Controversy and uncertainty remain, but university applications have largely held up and the financial position of institutions remains strong. Unlike health, there are signs that the reforms in the academy will bed in quickly. One important reason for this has been the steadying influence of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its chief executive, Sir Alan Langlands, who has experience of running both the NHS and a university.

Sir Alan came to Hefce in 2009 after leading the NHS from 1994 to 2000 and spending nearly 10 years as vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee (2000 to 2009). On his watch, he has had to manage the introduction of the most radical changes to higher education for decades. Others have had to cope with similarly tough briefs, but few have managed to deliver change and build respect and confidence in the sector at the same time. His experience provides an important lesson in good management and good government.

When new ministers join their departments for the first time, they usually have radical ambitions and arguments about what is broken and how it can be fixed. At this point, the cautious, questioning nature of civil servants and those who run major "delivery" organisations are rarely popular. "Just deliver what we want!" cry impatient ministers, increasingly suspicious of their mandarins, their motives and their loyalties.

But the best ministers, and the most effective policies, are usually shaped and delivered by a combination of ministerial and managerial capability. When this works, it is the best of both worlds.

It is well-established that politicians and senior civil servants don't really like "doing" delivery. As Lord Bichard, former permanent secretary in the Department for Education and Employment, has described, an undesirable consequence of Whitehall's obsession with policy design is that the jobs of delivering policy, and of management, are undervalued.

"If you can't 'do' policy," Bichard said, "then you are relegated to the Siberian fields of management." But the importance of these fields should not be underestimated. Look at individual learning accounts or further education capital projects - two good ideas that failed spectacularly under Labour because the Learning and Skills Council couldn't manage complex delivery or tell ministers that their policies weren't working.

Sometimes, when such advice is forthcoming, it is not well received. Consider the Department for Education today and Michael Gove's clear-out of senior staff, from the permanent secretary to the chief executives of Ofsted and the Training and Development Agency. But the often uncomfortable truth is that the best policy depends on the best advice - tough and challenging though it often will be - from the people who have to deliver change.

Which brings us back to Sir Alan and his often repeated desire of "smoothing" out the transition from the old system to the new. Of course, his reputation and effectiveness also depend on ministers actively seeking his opinion. Vince Cable and David Willetts have learned to listen and to trust his advice and, more often than not, to take it. But his isn't an example of a Yes Minister-style bureaucrat schooled in influence, tact and obfuscation. Rather, it is a much more direct and challenging assessment of problems foreseen and a good sense of the right and wrong things to do. Perhaps surprisingly, his style and tone is much the same with vice-chancellors as it is with ministers. It is one of the reasons why both seem comfortable with Hefce's transition from funder to lead regulator.

And it is a style that works. That's one of the reasons why the reforms, however contentious, haven't bombed as they have in welfare and in health. Universities might not relish a more marketised, competitive and uncertain future, but they are happier going there with Sir Alan Langlands leading Hefce and with ministers heeding his words.

Andy Westwood is chief executive of GuildHE. He spent five years as a special adviser to ministers in the Treasury, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

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