07 May 2015

As Whitehall briefly enjoys the quiet centre of the election storm, Jill Rutter and Dan Devine take a look at the people who will be waiting for the call from Downing Street to tell them their new boss is on the way.

Only one permanent secretary was in their post at the time of the 2010 General Election. When new secretaries of state meet their permanent secretaries following the election, only one will meet a permanent secretary who was there for the transition in 2010: Sir Nicholas Macpherson at the Treasury. Additionally, Robert Devereux, now at DWP, was Permanent Secretary at DfT last time round. (We have excluded the territorial offices and devolved governments from this analysis.) The longevity of permanent secretaries in post was notable in 2010. Many had already been in post for well over the normal four-year presumption, persuaded to stay (in some case postponing retirement) by then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. In 2015, the least experienced permanent secretary, Melanie Dawes, has been in post for a couple of months. But the average tenure is similar now compared to 2010:

  • On average, permanent secretaries greeting new ministers in 2015 will have been in post slightly longer – for 1289 days, compared to 1252 in 2010
  • However, if we take out the long-serving Macpherson (HMT), the average becomes 1146 days in 2015, shorter than the 1221 days in 2010
  • The median of all permanent secretaries in 2015 is also shorter – 1137 days in post – compared to 1378 in 2010.

Most ministers, then, will find permanent secretaries who have clocked up at least a couple of year in post. Indeed there has been a period of considerable stability since the earlier musical chairs in the first two years of this Parliament. More female (just), but all white – and time in the Treasury still a good career move But incoming ministers will also find that their top officials are not significantly more diverse than in 2010. Then there were four women in charge of departments (numbers soon to be boosted in the next round of appointments) and two permanent secretaries from an ethnic minority. There are now six women in charge of departments – a recovery from the mid-session low after the quick succession of departures – reflecting the fact that the most recent two appointments were both female. But the two non-white permanent secretaries at the table in 2010 have moved on: Sir Suma Chakrabarti and Nemat Shafik moved on and the pipeline has failed to produce a BME successor. On another measure of diversity – prior experience and career path – recent appointments hark back to earlier days when spending formative years at the Treasury (in this case both as professional economists) was the route to the top. Early movers? The next few months could see further changes. Anyone appointed in 2010 or 2011 has now exceeded the presumption of a four-year appointment. One – Sir Simon Fraser at the FCO – has already indicated that he will leave the diplomatic service at the end of July. But there are other departments too – DWP, BIS, Health and Defra – where the permanent secretaries have already done a long stint in post. And exceeding them all sits Sir Nicholas Macpherson at the Treasury, already a veteran in May 2010 and whose tenure now resembles the near eternal permanent secretaries of yore. But there could be other permanent secretaries who decide to move on early – and potential fallout from machinery of government changes. Potential moves will offer a new government a chance to make its mark with permanent secretary appointments. Melanie Dawes will go down in history as the first permanent secretary to be appointed under the new rules which explicitly allow the prime minister to choose from a list – rather than simply veto the choice of the Civil Service Commission. But by the autumn we could see whether a new pattern of appointments has started to emerge as the prime minister exercises their influence.

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