Last week’s decision by the prime minister to block the appointment of David Kennedy as Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change has rekindled the debate on the role of ministers in civil service appointments. The debate was initially sparked by the Civil Service Reform Plan, published in June 2012, which called for a stronger ministerial role in the recruitment of permanent secretaries.
The Civil Service Commission has now entered the fray, publishing an 'explanatory note' on the current process, which 'stops short of allowing ministers to choose from a list of recommended candidates'. Instead, ministers are closely consulted throughout the recruitment process, but a single name is then put forward for the prime minister’s approval.
It is helpful that the Civil Service Commission has clarified current practice around ministerial involvement in senior appointment processes in Whitehall. At present, there is too little transparency about what is and is not accepted practice in this regard. In this context misconceptions can grow, such as the idea that ministers do not already have significant influence.
Indeed the Civil Service Commission is right to take seriously the need to involve ministers at all stages of the recruitment process. Where ministers have the opportunity to influence how the recruitment process is run and to meet and comment on shortlisted candidates, then disagreements at the final selection stage are less likely to occur. And few would disagree that any permanent secretary must enjoy the confidence of their ministers in order to carry out their job effectively.
The Institute for Government is itself exploring this issue as part of a wider programme of work on accountability in Whitehall, and we will be publishing a paper on this in the New Year. On the whole, we take the view that there is some scope to move towards greater ministerial choice.
The impartiality of the Civil Service – and the ability of individual officials to serve successive administrations – is of course an invaluable asset, and one that should not be imperilled. Thus, we would oppose any move to US or French style politicisation, where party-political figures fill the top ranks of the administration, and are replaced when the government changes.
However, this scenario is not under consideration. What the Government is proposing is not for unfettered ministerial appointment power, but rather for ministers (or the prime minister) to make the final choice from a list of two or more candidates put forward by an independent selection panel. Since the prime minister, acting as minister for the Civil Service, already has a statutory veto (provided by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010), the question is what would be the risks and potential benefits of taking this extra step of formally giving ministers a choice of candidates.
In our judgement, it is not apparent that offering ministers a choice from a list of ‘above-the-line’ candidates would threaten ‘politicisation’ of the civil service, since all candidates would have passed through a merit-based selection process overseen, as at present, by the Civil Service Commission, and would remain bound by the civil service code and its commitment to political impartiality.
It is also important to note that for a wide number of public appointments ministers are already given a choice of (usually two) candidates put forward by an independent appointment panel. This system operates for highly important posts where the ability to operate impartially is at least as important as for civil servants – such as for the governor of the Bank of England, the chairman of the BBC Trust, and the information commissioner.
Similarly, the prime minister is already known to personally interview candidates for the position of cabinet secretary and to make the final decision himself. This approach has not led to concerns about the post of cabinet secretary becoming politicised in the sense of losing the ability to work with administrations of different colours.
For the above reasons, we conclude that a small increase in the ministerial role in senior appointments along the lines proposed would not mark a fundamental transformation in the relationship between ministers and officials.
Equally, however, given ministers’ existing and extensive influence in this regard, we remain to be convinced that this change would ease ministers’ concerns about the responsiveness of Whitehall to their wishes. Indeed, it is possible that this reform could be introduced without having much of an impact at all.