Whitehall's permanent revolution

30 Jan 13
Josh Harris

Trust between ministers and mandarins is at a low ebb. But it's important that progress is made on the way permanent secretaries are appointed 

It’s no secret that relations at the top of Whitehall have been strained in recent months, with frustrations played out across the press.  Trust seems more fragile than ever.

Against this backdrop, the issue of how much ministers should be involved in civil service appointments is, unfortunately, becoming seen as a front in a wider war. The polarised nature of the debate risks backing all sides into their respective corners, removing any room for compromise.

This matters because mistrust between ministers and their officials weakens the ‘dual leadership’ of secretary of state and permanent secretary that is vital for managing departments effectively and delivering government policy.

If this debate is to be more than a trial of strength between mandarins and ministers, it needs to move beyond caricatures of ‘obstructive’ officials and ministers bent on ‘politicising’ the civil service.  The first step is acknowledging that the current reality is already more complex than most people imagine.

As Sir David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner, made clear at an Institute for Government seminar this week, ministers already have considerable influence over appointments.  Recently published guidance by the Civil Service Commission requires that ministers agree the job description, person specification, and the composition of the selection panel; meet the candidates; and feedback to the panel before final interviews.

As the recent recruitment process at the Department for Energy and Climate Change demonstrated, the prime minister can veto the selected candidate, causing the process to be re-run.  Avoiding this outcome focuses the Commission on meeting the minister’s expectations, so far as these are consistent with a merit-based and impartial competition.  But the guidance ‘stops short of allowing ministers to choose from a list of recommended candidates’.

Why do ministers want a choice?  The truth is that while some ministers brief against their officials and offload blame for mistakes, many others take seriously the traditional principle of ministerial accountability to parliament.  But they do not in turn feel that they have the control over their department needed to make that accountability meaningful.  As Cabinet Office NED and former McKinsey boss Ian Davis put it at the Institute’s seminar, being accountable without management powers is ‘inconceivable’ in the private sector.

This is why former environment secretary Caroline Spelman wants the ‘power of co-decision’ over appointments, with the secretary of state a full member of the selection panel.  In her view, this would cement more strongly the relationship between ministers and their top officials.

Moving towards ministerial appointment would not necessarily herald the end of an impartial civil service, but neither would it mean that civil servants would all suddenly become highly competent, skilled, responsive, and effective at developing and delivering policy.  There are deeper questions about departmental capability and resilience which a change at the top, irrespective of who makes that change, cannot alone answer.

Realisation of this is perhaps one of the reasons that, for now, ministers seem prepared to give Sir David’s new guidelines a go.  They need time to be tested.  Clarifying the role of ministers, even without giving them a choice, might lead to a more transparent and less contested appointments process.  We should hope so for the sake of all involved – not least candidates whose careers are on the line.

This apparent compromise also offers hope that this debate can begin shifting outside the confines of constitutional principle, and onto questions about how the civil service nurtures talent, develops capability, and offers the reward and respect which the best public leaders deserve.

Putting arguments about politicisation to bed also allows a more searching conversation to take place about accountability for performance.  Reaching a compromise with Sir David would not mean a victory for Sir Humphrey, but could make space for agreeing reforms focused more closely on civil service performance.

Permanent secretaries might take publication of their objectives more seriously, for example, if they saw it as central to their management and reward rather than a distracting ministerial initiative.

So long as civil service reform is seen through the prism of a war between officials and politicians, progress will stall.  For Francis Maude and his fellow reform-minded ministers, the main prize must be an effective and efficient government machine which attracts and retains the very best people.  A compromise on appointments might be the smartest way to move closer towards it.

Josh Harris is a researcher at the Institute for Government. How permanent secretaries should be appointed was the topic of a recent Institute for Government debate with former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, First Civil Service Commissioner Sir David Normington, and Cabinet Office NED Ian Davis. The link is at http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/events/how-should-permanent-secretaries-be-appointed


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