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By Prime Ministerial Appointment: the PM and Permanent Secretaries

An inevitable decision.

The Civil Service Commission had gone out on a limb on the issue of Permanent Secretary appointments in face of the views of the three main parties and many senior civil servants. So its latest announcement that the Prime Minister will, in future, be given a choice of candidates for around 25 heads of department posts had become inevitable.

The Commission decided to put forward its own proposals rather than having them imposed by legislation. But that is far from the end of the story. There are questions on the scope of appointments included and the role of Secretaries of State in the final decision, especially in a coalition. Ministers have always been involved in top civil service appointments. They have been consulted on the criteria and been able to talk to candidates. The question has been: should ministers have the final choice, as with other public appointments, or does this risk politicizing the selection of senior civil servants? The Institute for Government has argued—notably in our June 2013 report Permanent Secretary appointments and the role of ministers—that Secretaries of State already have large, non-transparent influence over the appointment of their permanent secretaries and this should be made explicit in a choice from merit-based short lists. The Commission has given the decision to the Prime Minister, as ministers favoured, but has sought to constrain the choice ‘to protect the principle of an impartial civil service, appointed on merit and able to serve the government of the day and any future government’. Therefore the selection panel will be chaired by the First Civil Service Commission who will control the recruitment process and the panel membership, which alone will determine which candidates are judged to be appointable, and so put to the Prime Minister (if necessary, only one). And no candidates can be added to the list if the panel has not assessed them as appointable. This approach and safeguards are broadly welcome to the Institute, as we said in our December 2013 report Accountability at the Top: ‘so long as there is a rigorous merit-based assessment preceding the exercise of ministerial choice and appointed candidates are bound by the existing civil service code and values, then there would not be an increased risk of politicization, but a system that is more accountable and more closely reflects the reality’. There are three main questions: First, the Commission stresses that its focus is not on grades but on heads of department who both report to a Secretary of State and are accounting officers. This is not the same as Permanent Secretaries, not all of whom will be included, though the Cabinet Secretary and the new chief executive of the civil service will be. Ministers will press for a larger group than the 25 departmental heads to include other officials who work closely with ministers. Second, the proposals do not reflect the existence of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats are concerned that the role of the Deputy Prime Minister is ignored. The Commission believes that is a matter for the government and for the Prime Minister to resolve how far the Deputy Prime Minister should be involved. Third, and related, is the position of Secretaries of State who will, after all, have to work with the heads of department. At present, they are consulted throughout but they are not mentioned in the proposals. Presumably, their views will count. This, again, is of particular concern to the Liberal Democrats after the initial choice of the DECC Permanent Secretary two years ago had been backed by Ed Davey but was then vetoed by David Cameron, and a fresh recruitment process was started. (By contrast, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers will have the final decision over the most senior civil servant in their governments.) These questions will need to be answered and the proposals clarified during the consultation process - before coming into effect on December 1st, just in time for the appointment of Sir Bob Kerslake’s successor at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

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