30 November 2012

Does the prime minister’s public confirmation that he vetoed the appointment of Climate Change Committee chief executive David Kennedy to be permanent secretary at DECC signal a change in ministerial activism on civil service appointments?

“Ministerial involvement is actively encouraged for permanent secretary and other key competitions – it is a critical part of getting the right person for the job”. So wrote Civil Service Commissioner Sir David Normington to The Times, the day after the Civil Service Reform Plan was published. “They [ministers] can even veto the panel’s recommended person and ask for the whole recruitment process to begin again.”

But the news that the prime minister had vetoed the recommendation of David Kennedy to fill the vacant post at DECC merited an FT splash exclusive on Twitter last night. There are a number of reasons why this attracted so much attention.

First, ministerial influence is usually behind the scenes. Ministers are allowed chats with short-listed candidates; they can help with the job description and guide the panel on what to look for in the right candidate. That usually ensures that the person that emerges from the process will be acceptable as it is in no one’s interest to appoint someone into a relationship that cannot work from the start.

Second, on this occasion it looks as though the secretary of state was happy with the preferred candidate. It was No.10 who said no – and they were happy to put that on the record.

The reason that the prime minister seems to have taken against Mr Kennedy is not any view on his capacity (though there were a lot of stories that some at least wanted a DECC head with a business/commercial background), but rather that he came from the Climate Change Committee – established with cross-party support in the 2008 Climate Change Act to monitor government performance on its long-term emissions targets. Mr Kennedy has, as such, been on the record frequently on government performance on a core part of the mission of the department to which he applied. This marks him out from most of the pretty anonymous candidates for permanent secretary.

The job description should have made clear that the candidate would have to be able to work closely with the energy supply industry – and given Mr Kennedy’s background, he will have been asked how he would manage to convince the industry that he was not a “green nutter”. Since the panel recommended him, he must have satisfied them on this point.

Mr Kennedy’s non appointment may just be a bit of collateral damage from the coalition warfare over the Energy Bill – and the increasing concerns that the government needs to go all out for growth. But the message that risks being sent out is that people with expertise and previous convictions on policy need not apply unless their views are precisely in line with the government’s (or in this case, one part of the government’s). For a government desperately in need of real firepower and knowledge to square its economic and environmental ambitions, that is a bad signal to send.

The DECC competition will now be re-run. There was apparently a very strong field first time round. It will look a lot less tempting now.

It also opens the question of the role of ministers in civil service appointments in the light of the Civil Service Reform Plan. This is something that Akash Paun and Josh Harris will be looking at shortly as part of their study of accountability arrangements in Whitehall.


And here's what the Civil Service Commission recruitment principles say on appointment by merit:

“Merit - means the appointment of the best available person: no one should be appointed to a job unless they are competent to do it and the job must be offered to the person who would do it best.”

Hard to see how it is compatible with the ministerial/PM right to veto a recommendation of the recruitment panel.

Here's the reponse I received from my enquiry to the Civil Service Commissioner Sir David Normington about the implications of the non- appointment of the DECC Perm Sec for the next round of recruitment. It does not explain what he will do in response to the breach of the Commission's recruitment principles which enshrine appointment on merit as well as selection on merit.

Dear Mr Spencer

Thank you for your email of 30 November.

The Civil Service Commission has a legal responsibility to ensure that selection for appointment to the Civil Service is on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. We publish ‘Recruitment Principles’ explaining how that is to be done. In the most senior competitions I, or one of my fellow Commissioners, would usually chair the selection panel to ensure that proper process is followed.

I can assure you that in the competition to appoint a new Permanent Secretary at DECC the required process was followed meticulously. There was a full open competition. A distinguished panel selected the candidate it believed matched best the published specification for the job and recommended that candidate to the Secretary of State and, through him, to the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has the ultimate power, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, to appoint or, as in this case, not to appoint. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to exercise his legal power in this way and the Commission has no jurisdiction over this part of the process.

As for the future, the Head of the Civil Service has agreed with Ministers that the process should be rerun as an internal competition. The Civil Service Commission will oversee this, and, of course, it follows that the successful candidate will come from existing civil servants.

David Normington

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