Impermanent secretaries

31 March 2011

On the day Nemat Shafik hands in her keys to the top office at the Department for International Development, it is interesting to reflect on the massive change at the top Whitehall has undergone since the election.  What are striking are both the degree of change and the lack of prior departmental experience of those appointed.

At a time when Whitehall faces unprecedented cuts, and with a new ministerial management team in charge, it could be assumed that there would be a premium on experience and stability among top officials.

In fact, since the election, there has been an unprecedented level of churn at the top level.

By the first anniversary of the government, of 16 departments, only six will not have had a change of permanent secretary – so ministers, all of whom have with under a year’s experience in all those departments, will all have someone with less experience at the top.

Department Change since May Any prior dept experience In dept in May 2010?
DH Y Y Y
MOD Y Y Y
FCO Y Y N
DWP Y Y N
CLG Y N N
HO Y N N
DfT Y N N
Defra Y N N
BIS Y N N
DfiD Y To be appointed N
HMT N
MoJ N
DECC N
DfE N
CO N
DCMS N

Prior experience

What the new appointments make clear is that prior departmental experience is not a prerequisite for promotion. Out of nine departments with new permanent secretaries (DfID is still recruiting) only two had immediate prior experience – at Department of Health and Ministry of Defence. However, the new permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was a career diplomat who did a brief stint outside the department.

Five of the new permanent secretaries have never worked in the departments to which they have been appointed – though Sir Bob Kerslake at the Department of Communities and Local Government headed up one of their big agencies and had a long track record in local government.

The Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stand out as the departments that still promote their own – for the rest it’s the exception, not the rule.

Skills over knowledge

This all demonstrates the extent to which permanent secretaries are now valued for their generic leadership and management skills rather than any in-depth knowledge of departmental business.

But at a time when unprecedented cuts are being implemented, it might help to know where the bodies are buried and where the landmines are. As it is, the new permanent secretaries will be playing catch up with their ministers.

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