Parliament at night

Top 5 challenges for the new Clerk of the House

House of Commons clerks tableIt’s not yet clear who will succeed Sir Robert Rogers at the helm of the House of Commons following his retirement last month.  There’s much speculation that the job will go, for the first time, to an outsider – possibly the head of the Department of Parliamentary Services in the Australian Parliament in Canberra. If so, it will be a big break with tradition and suggest a step in the direction of a more traditional Chief Executive figure.

But whatever the identity of the new appointee, they will have to grapple with the same challenging issues in the coming years. And if it is to be a CEO type figure, they will have to rapidly get to grips with the discomfiting reality that they are not actually in charge of the House of Commons – that power lies with Members who are reluctant to surrender control on anything to anyone. And sheer willpower won’t make the House of Lords fall into line when it comes to contentious issues like shared services.

But once they’ve got their feet under the desk, what will be the big issues lurking in their in-tray?

Restoration and renewal

By far the biggest challenge looming on the horizon is what’s known as the ‘Restoration and Renewal’ programme. Westminster is a World Heritage site that is badly in need of repair – potentially to the tune of £4 billion. There are three key options on the table. Take fright at the bill and ignore the problem, potentially risking the future of one of the great buildings of the world not to mention the health and safety of everyone in it. Alternatively, agree a much needed programme of repairs and move out for up to five years to enable the work to be carried out. Or, stay put, and require the work to be carried out around normal business, possibly disrupting life on the parliamentary estate for up to a decade.

Whatever the outcome there will be critics aplenty – not least in the media – so it will need careful handling. The decision is ultimately a matter for the politicians, but as the House’s accountable officer if anything happens the Clerk/Chief Executive will be held responsible; likewise they will be expected to resolve the operational and logistical issues arising from whatever Members decide. They are unlikely to still be in post when the work is finished – their job is to prepare the way. 

Of course, Members in both Houses will not want to move out and finding a suitable alternative location for Parliament for at least five years will be a challenge. But even staying put will have huge knock-on effects. If Westminster is a building site it will, for example, affect tours for constituents, reduce the availability of function rooms for meetings or entertaining guests, and income generation will dwindle.

But if Members do decide to decant elsewhere for up to five years then it could be a revolutionary moment. It’s a once in a century opportunity to carve out a new way of working for the future, to rethink how Parliament carries out its business and engages with the public it serves. The last time there was an opportunity on this scale Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Digital transformation

Parliament has committed to a ‘Digital First’ strategy to cut costs, improve current service levels and prepare Parliament for a digital future. An early task will be to recruit the right person to be the new Digital Director and oversee implementation of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission, scheduled to report early in the New Year. The digital strategy will challenge the traditional hierarchies and decision-making processes in both Houses. Members and officials will need to have the courage to move away from the comfort zone of centralised command and control to the more messy and uncertain environment of the digital world. The attitude of the Clerk/Chief Executive will be vital in setting the tone and leading by example.

The general election

If the coalition breaks up before the election the new Clerk/Chief Executive will have to offer impartial advice to all the parties as they navigate their way through a messy few months of minority government. If the election is then inconclusive but the parties decide they’ve had enough of coalition, another minority government based on a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement or Pact could be the result. If so, that will pose huge procedural and political challenges of a kind not seen since the 1977-78 Lib-Lab Pact. And then, of course, there’s the very practical issue of inducting all the new MPs – the turnover will not be as great as in 2010 but there are plenty of old hands on both sides of the House heading for retirement. The orientation and induction programme improves at each election but the Clerk will rapidly have to get up to speed with the identity of all the new Members and win their confidence and trust.

Procedural reform

If a current Clerk does get the job they will have to be careful to be even handed in their approach to all the departments – any hint of favoritism to their old Department of Chamber and Committee Services will go down like a lead balloon among the rest of the staff. On the other hand, if the person appointed is not a Clerk and comes from outside Westminster then they will immediately face a problem.  Realistically they won’t be able to advise the Speaker on matters of procedure and precedence. The recently retired Clerk built up the necessary knowledge bank over a 40-year career in the House; it’s not something to be learnt in a matter of months. And internal relationships with the clerks in DCCS are likely to be delicate if one of their own has been overlooked. In practice, the best (perhaps only) solution may be to enhance the role of the Clerk Assistant – who already serves as Head of DCSS – elevating that role to be the primary procedural adviser to the Speaker with the new appointee focusing on the Chief Executive aspects of the job.

The Speaker still has ambitions for further reform, not least in relation to the creation of a House Business Committee. Whatever their background and role, the new appointee should push and inspire the House to rethink the way it carries out core legislative business. Rather than merely tinkering, why not be bold and take a fresh look at the whole process – particularly in the context of whatever may happen with the restoration and renewal programme? And flowing from that, the way in which departments are organised, situated, and funded will then have to be reviewed.

Managing resources and relationships

The House like all other areas of public sector spending has endured austerity and several rounds of swingeing budget cuts. The cash budget allocation is unlikely to change much in the next few years and whilst there may still be some efficiency savings to be found these will increasingly be at the margins. The House has a programme for income generation but plans are behind schedule and a potential decant from the parliamentary estate may hinder future developments. Another senior management appointment – finding a new Head of the Department of Information Services – will thus be a priority in the coming months.

Despite the budget projections, demands on resources – particularly from Select Committees seeking to extend their powers and influence, and from the increasing number of Members’ staff – are growing. There is likely, as a consequence, to be increased tension between managing the support of frontline activity – mainly the scrutiny work of the House – and managing support services such as HR and finance not to mention areas such as public engagement, education and outreach, and library and information provision. Here is where tensions with the House of Lords will kick in as the pressure to streamline services and eradicate duplication, increases.

Quickly developing a good working relationship with their opposite number in the other House will therefore be vital. All in all, the new Clerk/Chief Executive will face a huge challenge navigating the complex web of relationships and tensions between their fellow administration staff, the Members, the Commission, the Speaker, and the government as well as the ‘other place’. It requires a sophisticated, politically astute skill set from a leader that is subtle but inspiring and can command respect. And finally, although they may owe their position to the support of the Speaker, they would do well to remember that he won’t be Speaker forever. They cannot afford to be perceived as a creature of his creation; they have to prepare for a post-Bercow world as well.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research



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