Much ado about nothing? The row over ministerial involvement in permanent secretary appointments

11 December 2012

The Government’s plans to extend the role of ministers in top civil service appointments are coming under increasing scrutiny. What are the risks and potential benefits of reform in this area?

Last week’s decision by the prime minister to block the appointment of David Kennedy as Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change has rekindled the debate on the role of ministers in civil service appointments. The debate was initially sparked by the Civil Service Reform Plan, published in June 2012, which called for a stronger ministerial role in the recruitment of permanent secretaries.

The Civil Service Commission has now entered the fray, publishing an ‘explanatory note’ on the current process, which ‘stops short of allowing ministers to choose from a list of recommended candidates’. Instead, ministers are closely consulted throughout the recruitment process, but a single name is then put forward for the prime minister’s approval.

It is helpful that the Civil Service Commission has clarified current practice around ministerial involvement in senior appointment processes in Whitehall. At present, there is too little transparency about what is and is not accepted practice in this regard. In this context misconceptions can grow, such as the idea that ministers do not already have significant influence.

Indeed the Civil Service Commission is right to take seriously the need to involve ministers at all stages of the recruitment process. Where ministers have the opportunity to influence how the recruitment process is run and to meet and comment on shortlisted candidates, then disagreements at the final selection stage are less likely to occur. And few would disagree that any permanent secretary must enjoy the confidence of their ministers in order to carry out their job effectively.

The Institute for Government is itself exploring this issue as part of a wider programme of work on accountability in Whitehall, and we will be publishing a paper on this in the New Year. On the whole, we take the view that there is some scope to move towards greater ministerial choice.

The impartiality of the Civil Service – and the ability of individual officials to serve successive administrations – is of course an invaluable asset, and one that should not be imperilled. Thus, we would oppose any move to US or French style politicisation, where party-political figures fill the top ranks of the administration, and are replaced when the government changes.

However, this scenario is not under consideration. What the Government is proposing is not for unfettered ministerial appointment power, but rather for ministers (or the prime minister) to make the final choice from a list of two or more candidates put forward by an independent selection panel. Since the prime minister, acting as minister for the Civil Service, already has a statutory veto (provided by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010), the question is what would be the risks and potential benefits of taking this extra step of formally giving ministers a choice of candidates.

In our judgement, it is not apparent that offering ministers a choice from a list of ‘above-the-line’ candidates would threaten ‘politicisation’ of the civil service, since all candidates would have passed through a merit-based selection process overseen, as at present, by the Civil Service Commission, and would remain bound by the civil service code and its commitment to political impartiality.

It is also important to note that for a wide number of public appointments ministers are already given a choice of (usually two) candidates put forward by an independent appointment panel. This system operates for highly important posts where the ability to operate impartially is at least as important as for civil servants – such as for the governor of the Bank of England, the chairman of the BBC Trust, and the information commissioner.

Similarly, the prime minister is already known to personally interview candidates for the position of cabinet secretary and to make the final decision himself. This approach has not led to concerns about the post of cabinet secretary becoming politicised in the sense of losing the ability to work with administrations of different colours.

For the above reasons, we conclude that a small increase in the ministerial role in senior appointments along the lines proposed would not mark a fundamental transformation in the relationship between ministers and officials.

Equally, however, given ministers’ existing and extensive influence in this regard, we remain to be convinced that this change would ease ministers’ concerns about the responsiveness of Whitehall to their wishes. Indeed, it is possible that this reform could be introduced without having much of an impact at all.

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Comments (2)

  1. Phillip Ward on 12 December 2012 at 9:03 am

    I think you are being a bit complacent about what seems to have happened with the DECC Perm Sec appointment. While I see no harm in the proposal that ministers should be allowed a choice between two equally well qualified candidates (assuming there are two) there should be some discussion about the grounds on on which it is legitimate for the choice to be made. In the case of the DECC appointment we have been told nothing about the reason for the veto – but the assumption is that Kennedy’s proactive stance in his role on the Climate Change Committee has counted against him. This is despite the fact that he has an impressive personal track record, has been carrying out his statutory duties under the Climate Change Act and has been judged suitable for the post, by a selection panel including the Head of the Civil Service, and the First Civil Service Commissioner. And the Secretary of State was apparently happy to have him -so the usual concern that the Perm Sec and the incumbent minister might not be able to work together does not apply in this case.

    I think there are a number of concerns about this. First if Kennedy is rejected because his opinions are politically unacceptable, that will discourage people from having or at least voicing opinions – even privately- to ministers. That does not promise much for the speaking truth unto power role of senior civil servants.
    Second if there is no understanding of the grounds on which choices can legitimately be made – and in this case no reasons have been given- it is a short hop to appointing people because they are political supporters. If this becomes established or is even perceived as being established, we can expect incoming governments to want to purge the previous government’s supporters when they have the chance. I suspect we have seen a bit of that already with this government given the turn over in Perm Secs there has been since the election.

    If the Prime Minister’s reasons for rejecting Kennedy were legitimate, then this incident must raise questions about the judgement of the Head of the Civil Service and the First Commissioner. So will they be involved in the rerun and what criteria will they apply to the selection this time? Will they again work on the basis of finding the best qualified candidates acceptable to the Secretary of State or will they look for someone acceptable to the PM?

    More worrying in this particular case, we are seeing a fault line developing between the coalition partners on energy policy – driven by differences over climate change. David Cameron in his reshuffle has replaced a good minister with one who is there to represent Conservative back bench concerns especially on wind farms. He is not working with the Secretary of State and there is n ongoing dispute which Cameron is not resolving. Indeed in his action over the Perm Sec appointment he seems to have sided with the conservative minister. The risk must now be that Departmental officials will be drawn into taking sides. I pity Phil Wynn Owen who is holding the fort while the competition is rerun. He has to try to keep his people together at a critical time. This will be a real test of the value of a permanent civil service.

  2. Jill Rutter on 12 December 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Philip: this echoes some of the points that I made in my earlier blog on the DECC appointment – not least that it was signalling a preference for candidates with no stated views that could be held in evidence against them.

    In an internal competition, Ministers can be offered a choice (at least according to Sue Gray) as they may know the candidates. and you know that for jobs like private office they will see and choose from a number of candidates. There wasn’t even a competition for the post of Cabinet Secretary – and the job spec was designed around the person they wanted – Jeremy.

    the important thing is that the candidate could do the role. I was rather surprised that David emerged as the top candidate for DECC as he has not managed anything biggger than the CCC. And I really cannot see why the competition is being re-run, wasting everyone’s time unless they thought either the job description was wrong or the PM has no faith in the panel. Where I absolutely agree is that this raises questions over PM’s confidence in Bob Kerslake and David Normington’s judgement.

    When I was running an external competition for Head of News at Defra we were told that we could not offer our SoS a choice but he adamantly refused to agree to a choice of one (I think quite rightly). So we had to hatch a cunning plot to let him “bump” into the two candidates whom we tied first – -and he chose the same one we would have done… but as a result had absolute faith in him. I thought it was an absurd restriction.

    Why not let the PM and Ed Davey have a list of suitable candidates and let them agree whom they would appoint. I don’t think the world would fall in.

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