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An objective view

Permanent Secretary objectives in 2014-15.

Last week, the Cabinet Office published performance objectives for 2014-15 for permanent secretaries, the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the Civil Service in a new format. This is our latest Whitehall Monitor analysis.

Permanent Secretary Objectives form the basis for performance management As our deputy director, Julian McCrae, wrote in his blog last week:

"The objectives for permanent secretaries for 2014-15… 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 objectives are not new, but were only published for the first time in 2012-13 and then again for 2013-14. According to our December 2013 report, Accountability at the Top:

  • the end of year review takes place in the Spring
  • permanent secretaries report either to the Cabinet Secretary or the Head of the Civil Service
  • they are placed into one of three ‘box markings’, with a target of 25% in the top category (Box 1), 65% in the middle (Box 2) and 10% in the lowest category (Box 3)
  • the top 10% receive a performance bonus of £17,500.

The 2014-15 objectives are a marked improvement on previous releases The Institute has criticised previous releases on a number of grounds:

  • They were published too late – nine months into the year they applied to
  • There were too many objectives – an average of 18 in 2013-14 was unfeasibly high
  • They implied a ‘Christmas tree’ approach, with too many people adding objectives
  • Many objectives were missing measures or milestones by which to judge progress, and there was a huge variation in the format of these making them difficult to analyse.

The 2014-15 objectives show considerable progress:

  • They were published in July, not December
  • The average number of objectives is nine for each permanent secretary in 2014-15
  • Each set of objectives now opens with a general statement about the role and the priorities of the department, stemming the ‘Christmas tree’ effect
  • Measures are listed more consistently next to each objective.

There are considerably fewer objectives for each permanent secretary in 2014-15

The average number of objectives is now 9, compared to 18 in 2013-14. Lin Homer (HMRC) and Sir Jeremy Heywood (Cabinet Secretary) have the highest number of objectives – 13. The highest number in 2013-14 was 36, for Richard Heaton (Cabinet Office). ‘Business’ objectives account for more than half of all objectives

For nearly all permanent secretaries, objectives are split into three categories: Business (previously Business Delivery), Cross Government Working and Civil Service Reform (Corporate) and Capability (Capability Building). 54% of the 171 objectives fall into the Business category. (That rises to 55% of 177 if we include the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, who also has published objectives.) Despite the improvements, there is considerable variation in the number of measures by which each permanent secretary will be assessed

Some departments still seem to be shoehorning quite a lot into single objectives. One way of detecting this is to count the number of different measures of progress listed alongside the objectives as published by the Cabinet Office. The Permanent Secretary of DfE, Chris Wormald, has 12 objectives but 41 different measures. On the other hand, Sir Jeremy Heywood has fewer measures than objectives. Although, as with every other permanent secretary, there is an overall statement of how progress will be measured, four objectives do not have specific measures against them:

  • ‘I will ensure that… The Civil Service drives the Government’s overriding priority of restoring strong, balanced and sustainable growth across the UK’
  • ‘To ensure that Civil Service retains the confidence of all political parties in its impartiality and integrity’
  • ‘Embody the principles of Civil Service Reform’
  • ‘Ensure the Civil Service is well led’.

Despite this, the new format for the objectives makes them easier to understand, easier to analyse and easier to measure. And, with any luck, that means for the first time we’ll be able to assess how well each permanent secretary has actually performed against their objectives.

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