How permanent secretaries reach the top

8 October 2010

As the permanent secretary merry-go-round keeps spinning, it seemed a good time to dig out some statistics we put together earlier this year about the experience of the current crop of permanent secretaries.

We looked at the people who were permanent secretaries and second permanent secretaries in the main departments of state and the devolved administrations at the end of 2009. This gives a total of 29 people who can sit round the table at the Cabinet Secretary’s Wednesday morning meeting.

We drew our information from individuals’ biographies as reported in Dods online. Some of the statistics are very familiar – just 2 are non-white and 5 female.  But what is really striking is the narrowness of their experience base.

Still a job for life?

We looked at the number of years people had spent in different places before becoming permanent secretaries. The first striking thing from the graph below is how meagre the non-public sector experience is. Together private and non-profit employment accounts for only 3% of total working experience.

Even this overstates how much experience people really have – most of this experience was straight out of university before people opted for a long-term government career.

Pre-appointment experience of Permanent Secretaries (end-2009)

Pre-appointment experience of Permanent Secretaries (end-2009)

One of the big changes in recent years is the increase in people at the top of government with local government experience.  But although local government accounts for 4.3% of years spent (and the NHS 8.7% – because we have included both the Chief Executive of the NHS and the Chief Medical Officer), these figures are dominated by a few individuals who came late to Whitehall after long external experience. Over half of all permanent secretaries had no non-Whitehall experience.

The keys to promotion: doing time at the Treasury or in the centre – and in policy

We also looked at whether time at the Treasury or in the centre was key to promotion.  It certainly appears to help – but appears to not be as crucial as it once was when Permanent Secretary jobs were monopolised by Treasury lifers moving out for a final spin.

Experience of Permanent Secretaries (2009)

Experience of Permanent Secretaries (2009)

These figures probably slightly overstate HMT influence, because of Gordon Brown’s population of the centre with those he had come to know as Chancellor. And despite the emphasis on delivery, and counting all non-civil service experience as delivery (which is a stretch), the route to the top remains through policy – and this figure again reflects the very extensive delivery experience of a few individuals.

Policy / delivery experience of permanent secretaries (2009)

Policy / delivery experience of permanent secretaries (2009)

The evidence of the most recent appointments is that this picture is unlikely to change much soon. It will be interesting to see whether the appointments due soon at Business, Innovation and Skills or Transport widen the experience base.

An interesting question is how much it matters. The conventional wisdom – if not apparent in the people who emerge from the selection process - is that breadth of experience, and particularly exposure to the disciplines of the private sector, makes better managers.

But the Schumpeter column in last week’s Economist points out that “there is little evidence to support the common belief that businesspeople possess management skills that can easily be imported into the public sector”.

Further information

For more data about Whitehall's senior civil servants, see our 2009 guide: State of the Service

Share this post:

Comments (3)

  1. robert on 8 October 2010 at 1:57 pm

    No, but there may be evidence to support the common belief that diversity is preferable to uniformity.

  2. Mila Gupta on 23 June 2011 at 10:54 am

    Dear Jill, thanks for the wonderful article. I am from India and keep comparing the british civil service to ours as we have more or less emulated the british model. Am also pursing the courts in many cases against the government.
    I am curious to know whether the senior most permanent secretaries(permanent secretaries, cabinet secretaries) in UK are appointed directly by ministers or on the advice of ministers. I think that is a huge difference why civil service in UK is still less politicised than other countries.

  3. Jill Rutter on 28 June 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Mila: Ministers are not directly involved in the process. It is overseen by the Civil Service Commission http://civilservicecommission.independent.gov.uk/What_we_do/index.html
    people apply. There is usually a panel including a Commissioner. Final appointment is by the PM on advice form the Cabinet Secretary. In practice he will have sounded out the Secretary of State in advance.

Tags:

Blog: Permalink