21 January 2014

When I spoke at the Institute for Government last year I may have put the cat among the pigeons by calling for secretaries of state to have more say in the appointment of permanent secretaries – but can you seriously imagine the chairman of a company accepting that they have no say in the appointment of their chief executive?

I have the highest regard for the Civil Service, but that does not mean there is no room for improvement – this is one reform that I think would help to modernise it.

I had a good experience of working with civil servants at Defra even if I had a difficult time dealing with the four horsemen of the apocalypse: flood, drought, famine and plague. The Cabinet Office has embarked on reforms that I know make civil servants anxious, but the so-called Rolls Royce service may be in need of a service itself.

I think the secretary of state should be allowed to sit on the panel of senior civil servants which decides the appointment of a new permanent secretary. They will know the character of the department and what it needs whereas the other panel members have their own agendas. It is also no exaggeration to say that their political life will depend to some extent on this choice as the two will have to go into bat together before select committees, more often than not when things have gone wrong. I do not think this modest change amounts to politicisation – just a fair reflection of the interdependence which exists between a figurehead and line manager of the department.

The impartiality of the Civil Service is one of its greatest strengths and I was amazed how after 13 years of serving a government of one colour the professionalism of civil servants ensured a seamless transition. Long may this continue.

Civil service career development

I also have views about civil servants’ career development having seen what happened to them on my watch. The fast track civil servants on track for the top jobs often get disillusioned by the lack of career prospects for them and we lose talented people.

In politics it is regarded as wrong to perform a U-turn where that may exactly be the right thing to do. Having performed a U-turn on forests, I found a better way forward was inviting an independent panel to recommend what to do about them. I asked a couple of civil servants who went to work in the private sector what surprised them most. Quite independently they said first the speed of decision-making, and second the willingness to drop something which was not working.

So I think it would be good if civil servants could be seconded out to the private or third sector on a systematic basis to see how it works and what it is like to be on the receiving end of government decisions. The experience gained should be reflected by promotion upon the civil servants return. Inevitably some may never come back but even the two high flyers I lost did not rule out a comeback.

I saw a lot of churn in staff at my department as they sought promotion by moving to other departments. There is nothing wrong with that in principle and indeed it’s good for that individual’s career, but the poaching by large departments which can pull rank may leave the smaller departments exposed. I went through a policy crisis on forests without a permanent secretary, director of communication or head of news. In business, there is planning for succession and a notice period which ensures the organisation is not left vulnerable. It is worth recognising that many have to leave government altogether to get more competitive pay – with pay freezes, internal churn and staff departures this is bound to be more likely.

Like many organisations, the Civil Service needs to address its attrition rates so it doesn’t lose the key people it has invested in. The high flyers were easily identifiable but I felt we should do more to keep them and pave a way forward for them.


There are two distinct problems with the suggestions made by Caroline Spelman.

1. The difference between the Chair of a company and a Secretary of State is that the latter is a Political animal (with a capital "P") whilst the former is the Chair of a Board of Governors with a completely different political (small "p") constituency. The politician will inevitably be looking for political sympathies with her/his own views/agenda and will find it difficult to recognise the "political independence" of their head of department appointed to deliver a political agenda - to whatever party in power.

2. Secondment to the private sector sounds good and very positive. But in suggesting this idea Mrs Spelman fails to recognise that there are already alleged problems with potential bias and favoritism from private sector secondees working in government departments. I can imagine the furor if Notcuts were to submit a tender for managing the Forestry Commission land holdings if a senior civil servant had just completed a secondment to them. All kinds of restrictions and limitations would have to be imposed.

Lots of v interesting comments on twitter in response to proposals for more secondments. Real feeling by those who have gone on them that reentry to civil service is handled badly and that the external experience is not valued -- whereas the experience of people who come in with no prior civil service experience is overvalued. do other people agree with that?

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