Working to make government more effective


Clarifying accountability

The latest objectives for permanent secretaries

This year’s permanent secretary objectives, published yesterday, are a marked improvement on their predecessors. It is important that Whitehall is demonstrating that it is trying to improve its system of governance, rather than accepting that bad is an acceptable norm.

The objectives for permanent secretaries for 2014-15 form the basis for their performance management. The objectives will be used by the Cabinet Secretary or the Head of the Civil Service – the permanent secretaries are managed between them – for annual appraisal discussions and pay awards. The Institute was highly critical when the last set of objectives, for 2013-14, was published. We noted that:
  • the objectives were late – almost nine months into the year in which they applied
  • they contained an infeasibly high number of objectives – averaging 18 per permanent secretary
  • they showed all the signed of having been assembled via a “Christmas tree” process, where players from across Whitehall had added their own bauble to the collection.
So how do the 2014-15 versions compare to their predecessors? Most obviously, this blog is being written in July, not January. The objectives have been agreed much earlier than in the past. Admittedly they have come out slightly later than the commitment to publish in the spring, but then Whitehall has always taken a flexible approach to the passing of the year. Slippage by a single season is a marked improvement on what has gone before. The second striking thing is that the objectives have a new format. They consist of a general statement about the role of the permanent secretary, then the priorities of the department for 2014-15, before moving on to the specific, personal objectives of each permanent secretary. This new format, which was devised through a review led by DfID’s permanent secretary Mark Lowcock, seems to have stemmed the Christmas Tree affect. By providing a space to reiterate departmental priorities, it has reduced the pressure to repeat these inside the personal objectives. And by setting out the role of the permanent secretary, the various elements involved have been captured succinctly. In some cases, the personal objectives are now set out on a single page, giving some hope that they reflect a prioritisation process than can help permanent secretaries to focus their energies (though in a minority of cases, the personal objectives still look infeasibly long – we’ll be doing a full analysis in Whitehall Monitor next week). The new sections on the role of the permanent secretary also provide a much clearer definition of what the job involves than has appeared in public before. Of particular interest is the inclusion of an explicit stewardship role, looking after the longer term health of the department in ways that “command the confidence of ministers and MPs from all political parties”. This role is part of, rather than opposed to, the constitutional duty of the Civil Service to serve ministers. Certainly the published objectives provide far more light than the rather artificial and highly public fight about the constitutional position of the Civil Service earlier in the week. Lowcock’s review, which he discussed in more detail at an event here last week, has provided an elegant way of both tackling some of the weaknesses in the previous objectives and making them truly useful to anyone interested in what our Civil Service is there to do. In January, our biggest concern was that the poor state of the objectives indicated that there was no desire to improve an obviously ineffective governance system at the top of Whitehall. The improvements this time reflect the fact that Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake are taking this seriously. Tackling the symptom of poorly drafted objectives 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 yesterday’s publication is a step towards fixing a system of accountability whose messy, unpredictable and opaque nature currently serves nobody’s interests.

Related content