Clarity of accountability – are permanent secretary objectives helping?

27 January 2014

As part of reforming the Civil Service, the Government committed to making permanent secretaries’ objectives public. This process has proved informative, though perhaps not in the way intended. The 2013-14 objectives were published remarkably late and showed little improvement on their first appearance in 2012-13. And yes – this matters.

Permanent secretaries’ objectives notionally form the basis for their performance management. They are used by the Cabinet Secretary or the Head of the Civil Service – the permanent secretaries are managed between them – as the basis for permanent secretaries’ annual appraisal discussions and pay awards.

At that classic ‘hope you miss this’ time, the Friday afternoon before Christmas, the permanent secretary objectives for 2013-14 were finally published – almost nine months into the year to which they apply. Given the time obviously taken in agreeing them, has this made a significant difference to their quality? Unfortunately the answer is no. The average number of objectives remains infeasibly high – 18 per permanent secretary. In many cases, these objectives themselves are little more than cross-references – “contributing to the Civil Service Reform Programme” is a recurring example – so it is not really possible to tell what the individual is supposed to be doing. (And rather surprisingly given the time taken to prepare them, some measures remain “to be agreed”.)

The variation in formatting, also a feature of last year’s objectives, remains a pain for anyone trying to analyse the objectives themselves. But our analysis does reveal some minor improvements – on a generous interpretation 94% of objectives had at least one measure attached to them and 68% of objectives were time bound, up from 92% and 66% in 2012-13 (See Whitehall Monitor 2013). And over the longer term, there has been an improvement in the information used to assess the objectives – from the Civil Service People Survey to the Major Project Authority’s assessments of how projects are going.

All very interesting, but the objectives remain a long way from providing a usable basis for performance appraisals. However Whitehall is nothing if not cynical about the need to improve these objectives. Pretty much everybody knows that the objectives are assembled in a ‘Christmas tree’ fashion – with players from across Whitehall able to add their own ‘bauble’ to the collection. And the objectives are of relatively little value to the permanent secretaries themselves. Rather than providing their stated aim of “clarifying what is expected of every permanent secretary”, it is difficult to find any permanent secretary who thinks they do anything to help them get on with their difficult jobs. This is just ‘how Whitehall is’, and attempts to improve the situation miss the point of constitutional arrangements dating back to the 1800’s.

So does the Institute’s concern about the poor quality of the published objectives simply indicate that we don’t really ‘get’ Whitehall? In our own pre-Christmas publication, Accountability at the Top, we argued that any system of governance has to involve “clarity of accountability” – avoiding confusion as to who is responsible for what and to whom, and documenting this clearly in an appropriate place. For me, the state of the published objectives is simply a symptom of a system that does not contain such clarity, and more importantly does not care that this is clear to the world.

Is this really acceptable? Within departments, the days when objective setting and performance management were seen as alien ideas from another world are thankfully long gone. And you simply cannot imagine the ministerial submission that would justify an openly ineffective governance system continuing in any other part of the public sector – from the political environment of the town hall to the life and death issues involved in running health services. In all these areas, the point is not that they are perfect compared to weak permanent secretary objectives – the key thing is the striving to improve, not a belief that bad is the acceptable norm.

Removing the symptom of poorly drafted objectives of course does not by itself cure the disease of poor governance. Our proposed treatment for strengthening accountability at the top of Whitehall involves a series of inter-related changes, of which strengthening the objectives is only a small part. But for the Institute, the objectives will remain a vital barometer of whether Whitehall, both official and political, is really serious about fixing a system of accountability whose messy, unpredictable and opaque nature currently serves nobody’s interests.

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One Response

  1. Ruth on 6 February 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Interesting, but isn’t the main job of a permanent secretary a management and reactionary role rather than a delivery one? How can you set objectives in April for ministerial requirements you don’t know about until September?

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