Supporting Effective Leadership in Whitehall

This report is the final output of the Institute for Government’s 15-month programme of work on accountability arrangements in central government. It draws upon six previous research papers published during the programme, as well as the Institute’s wider evidence base on the state of Whitehall and the civil service reform agenda.

The focus of this report is the question of how and how effectively permanent secretaries are held to account. We assess current arrangements against four criteria of effective accountability, and argue that there are significant weaknesses at present. There is a lack of clarity around what permanent secretaries are personally responsible for – with no job description and a flawed performance objective system. There is also a lack of clear consequences for both good and bad performance.

We propose a set of 12 possible reforms that could help to improve matters, including:

  • A clear statement of the roles and responsibilities of both permanent secretaries and secretaries of state, with a particular recognition of the fact that permanent secretaries have a duty to prepare for longer-term challenges and possible future governments.
  • A stronger performance management system, with objectives that reflect the full range of permanent secretary functions, including implementation of short-term priorities, responsibility for the quality of policy advice to ministers, guardianship of propriety, and contribution to the collective leadership of government as a whole.
  • Clearer consequences for good and bad performance, including transparency about who are the top performing permanent secretaries, and about the reasons for changes at the top of particular departments.
  • Greater support for the challenge function of permanent secretaries – including support for them to register public concerns about the feasibility or value-for-money of policy decisions or projects.
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