10 October 2012

The government wants to extend the role of ministers in the appointment process for top civil servants. What are the issues at stake?

In a speech at the Institute for Government on 2 October, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude set out his case for giving ministers a greater role in the appointment of permanent secretaries, in a week in which the mishandled West Coast rail franchise decision kept the issue of civil service accountability in the spotlight.

Too often, Maude argued, senior civil servants deliberately block or delay implementation of ministerial initiatives. Further, ministers lack the levers to crack down on poor performance in Whitehall. And yet it is the minister who is called to account by Parliament and the media when things go wrong. Why then, should ministers not be able to hire, and perhaps also fire, their senior officials?

To critics, the answer is that the government’s plans would pave the way toward a “politicised” or – even worse – an “americanised” civil service. Others fear that if top officials owe their positions to ministers, they will feel less able to challenge ill-considered policy initiatives. The lines are thus drawn in the battle over whether and how to reform the status quo. But before that battle is joined, it is important to establish exactly what the status quo is – something the debate skims over surprisingly often.

The legal position, set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, is that appointments to the Civil Service must be made “on merit on the basis of fair and open competition”. This legislation also makes legal provision for the role of the Civil Service Commission, which regulates civil service appointments.

Few doubt that the appointments system does operate on the basis of the principles of meritocracy and impartiality. Yet at the same time, it is widely acknowledged that ministers already play a role: they are consulted about the type of candidate they would prefer and they can exercise a veto over a candidate selected by the appointment panel. Ways are also found to move out permanent secretaries when their relationship with the secretary of state has broken down.

At first glance, such practice may appear a breach of the principle of politically impartial recruitment. Yet for the most part this just reflects the recognition that departments where the political and administrative heads cannot work together are highly likely to be dysfunctional.

A more transparent system that clarifies the ministerial role in the appointment, performance management and dismissal of permanent secretaries might therefore mark a sensible step forward. Indeed, by codifying what already happens behind the scenes, there might be an opportunity to set strict limits as to what is and is not an appropriate level of political involvement.

A new Institute for Government project on accountability relationships in central government is exploring where such lines should be drawn. We are currently investigating the Australian and New Zealand accountability models (much cited, poorly understood), and are keen to engage with all those involved in the debate on civil service reform in the UK. We won’t find a perfect system, but hope at least to identify some areas where consensus on sensible ways forward might be found.

This article was originally published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of their review on ethical behaviour in public life at: http://blog.public-standards.gov.uk/

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I agree that this is a valuable area of study, and also think that too much can sometimes be made of the alleged inability of Ministers to influence appointments in the UK.

Senior appointments are rightly seen as both important and complex, and there has long been a recognitio that they need to take account of knowledge, skills, experience,leadership capabilities and personal chemistry. The short, medium and longer term needs of both the job and the team into which an individual is to be placed must also be asessed and pros and cons of various options weighed in the balance. This is a process which it is hard to capture in rigid rules, no matter how well-crafted or elegant.

From personal experience I know that in the 1980s Ministers and the Prime Minister were consulted about the candidates for senior appointments and regularly able to give their views on the leading candidates as part of the process. They were normally presented with the candidate recommended by the then Senior Appointments Selection Committee (SASC) as the most suitable and asked to endorse the choice. Normally they did so, but on a few occasions issues of vision and personal chemistry led to another of the shortlisted candidates being preferred. what they were not able to do was to intoduce a new personal favourite into the field.

In my view, that kind of approach strikes the right balance. Senior appointments should not depend on Ministerial whim alone and even the important issue of personal chemistry can be overdone given the need for individuals to work with successive Ministers. But as Akash Paun rightly notes, it would be crass to force together for any significant period people who were never going to be able to form a constructive working relationship.

My experience in Australia and New Zealand in the late 1980s did not suggest that they had any magic bullets then. They seemed to face the same dilemmas and occasional wicked issues as the UK. But it will be interesting to learn from both the political and official perspective if in the last 20 years something more has developed.