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Permanent secretaries?

How permanent are our permanent secretaries? Since the 2010 election 18 out of 20 departments have experienced at least one change of permanent secretary, with some moving departments and others leaving the Civil Service all together. At a time when departments are going through the most far-reaching reforms in a generation, the breadth and frequency of the changes provokes questions about how stable leadership is at the top of government.

As the graph shows, turnover among ‘permanent’ secretaries has been substantial since the Government was elected in May 2010. Just two departments have kept the same permanent secretary throughout: HMT and DCMS. MoD, Cabinet Office and DfT have each had four permanent secretaries (including acting heads of department). The department average is two permanent secretaries in the two and a half years since the election (excluding acting heads of departments). This compares with the same average of two permanent secretaries per department over the entire period from 1997 to May 2010 (excluding acting heads of departments). The current rate of turnover of permanent secretaries in post (averaging approximately one change every month since May 2010) is especially striking given the transformation Whitehall is going through and the turnover in departments more widely. As a recent Institute for Government report pointed out, leadership of change in Whitehall is fragile and “turnover on both sides of the leadership divide can make it difficult for departments to stick to a consistent direction of travel”. So if permanent secretary churn at first glance seems quite high, how does it compare to ministers heading departments? David Cameron sought to avoid repeating the supposedly high turnover of ministers under the last government. 11 out of 19 departments (excluding HMRC) have now experienced a change in their secretary of state (or senior minister in the case of the Cabinet Office):
  • two (Fox and Huhne) were due to resignations
  • one due to a promotion (Moore)
  • eight were due to the September reshuffle.
DfT, as well as being one of the departments with the most changes of permanent secretary, has also had the highest number of secretaries of state at three. The level of turnover is slightly higher than in the first two and a half years of the 1997 Labour Government, by which point seven out of 17 of the same or equivalent departments had experienced a change. So what might be the impact of this churn on both sides of the leadership divide? Three things stand out:
  1. Turnover has been significantly higher among permanent secretaries than ministerial leads, which means that for a number of departments the ministerial experience now significantly outweighs that of the ‘permanent’ head. Six departments still have the same ministerial head as they had post-election compared with just two departments for permanent secretaries.
  2. Departments have had to deal with a large amount of disruption and interim periods: since the 2010 election, there have been at least fourteen acting heads of departments spending an average of just under 3 months in this role.
  3. Average experience of current permanent secretaries (including acting heads of departments) is now only approximately 860 days – a little over two years. And this figure is itself inflated by the two remaining heads of department since before the election (Sir Nick MacPherson and Jonathan Stephens who took on their departments in 2005 and 2006 respectively), as well as Sir Peter Housden (Scotland) who was at DCLG for five years before his current post.
The period since 2010 election has been one of enormous change for Whitehall. The evidence clearly shows that permanent secretaries have proven anything but permanent since the election.

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