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Guest blog: a response to Martin Donnelly's speech on the Civil Service

More is possible.

Rob Whiteman

If we change our system of governance it should be by design and not stealth, and so Martin Donnelly deserves credit for his recent speech at the Institute for Government.

There is a view that the Coalition is going further than its predecessors in wising to break the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement. It is noteworthy that a senior mandarin has put the case for civil service neutrality. Donnelly says much that makes sense but perhaps pulls his punches. He could reasonably ask whether in our parliamentary system the government of the day, say a minority government that will not command parliament for a full term, has the legitimacy to appoint senior policy officials in its own image. We do not operate a presidential system where the country’s new chief executive makes over a thousand appointments for the next four years. He argues that the present system is sound and should adapt rather than be replaced. He questions whether permanent secretaries and the Cabinet might collectively spend more time together and that more proactive public communication is needed about the professionalism of officials. He argues for continual improvement, learning internationally, and dealing with contentious issues such as officials’ use of social media to engage directly with citizens to gather evidence and ideas. I think the system needs to adapt more than this and set out some ideas below. I would though first add that to some extent change is needed anyway to consistently operate the system in practice as Martin Donnelly sets out in theory. Advice is not always wholly impartial and giving ministers the advice they want may already sometimes go too far. We have seen no accounting officer directions in this parliament. Perhaps the director I know who proudly second guesses advice “near to the extreme” of what he believes are ministers’ instincts, so as to gain their trust, is not alone? Also, Donnelly’s comparison that a chief of staff would add a gatekeeping or policy development layer is not strictly true in all departments. Special advisers can at times determine what does or does not go before the secretary of state. More materially, for me the drivers for reform should be to improve our system, which lacks transparency and sufficient focus on the medium-term implications of short-term measures.  If you doubt the thesis, take a look at what most politicians and officials privately think of the bedroom tax. But of course, it’s popular politics! I have personal experience of two different worlds in which politics interacts with administration. As a local authority chief executive I was appointed by the Council Leader (ratified by all councilors) but expected by law to transparently provide advice and information to all parties and the public. As a civil servant I was appointed via an independent recommendation to the Prime Minister but covered by rules where disclosures to Parliament as an Accounting Officer are solely on the behalf of the government and cleared by ministers. I would encourage some debate to adapt the Civil Service more quickly to both better support politicians but also to provide greater transparency in the process of decision making:
  • Allow the transparent political appointment of departmental heads – let the secretary of state appoint the departmental head, perhaps subject to a confirmatory hearing or assessment by a commissioner that they are ‘above the bar’, on a rolling fixed term basis so that the department’s chief executive enjoys confidence and is at the heart of their leadership of the department.
  • Separate policy civil service expertise from the management of the department - perhaps Martin Donnelly makes an assumption that permanent secretaries are both the chief policy adviser and the departmental head?  But organisational development and culture change, so elusive in civil service reform, would benefit by a more overt delivery culture and ease the ability to recruit departmental heads from outside the civil service.
  • Decouple the role of permanent secretary and accounting officer – good corporate governance outside the civil service does not see the role of chief executive conflated with that of chief finance office. We should see departments’ chief financial officers at director general level with a firmer reporting line to the Treasury and the Public Accounts Committee – as accounting officers instead of the permanent secretary. They should independently score policy proposals and programmes and publish their advice on risk, cost and medium term sustainability. Greater transparency at inception would drive better decisions being made. We can learn from countries such as New Zealand here where performance metrics and budget estimates link to the accounts, whereas some financial information government puts in the public domain in the UK is below the standard of formal reported accounts.
In summary, more adaptation than proposed could actually strengthen the neutrality of the central policy civil service by separating the three roles of advice, management and finance presently lumped together in the role of permanent secretary. Greater transparency and medium term financial management on which to judge ministers’ decisions could help to maintain an impartial career civil service and the principles of Northcote Trevelyan that we cherish for the reasons Martin Donnelly so ably set out.

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