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How should permanent secretaries be appointed?

Monday 28 January 2013, 12:30


Sir David Normington, First Civil Service Commissioner and Commissioner for Public Appointments
Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Ian Davis, Non-Executive Director, Cabinet Office & Senior Partner Emeritus, McKinsey
Sir Ian Magee, Senior Fellow, Institute for Government (chair)

This public seminar examined how permanent secretaries should be appointed and what role ministers should play in the process.

The government’s civil service reform plan proposes that ministers be given a greater role in the appointment of permanent secretaries. Ministers are already involved: they are consulted about the job specification, they meet shortlisted candidates, and the Prime Minister can veto the candidate proposed by the appointment panel (as recently occurred in the case of the Department for Energy and Climate Change).

What ministers are unable to do at present is select a candidate from a final shortlist of names. Some ministers now want to gain that power. But others, including the Civil Service Commission, oppose this reform on the grounds that it may lead to a politicisation of the civil service.

Sir David Normington set out the Civil Service Commission’s view that ministers should not be given a choice of permanent secretary.  This was set in the context of an appointments process which now involves ministers throughout, by agreeing the job description and person specification; agreeing the composition of the recruitment panel; meeting the shortlisted candidates; suggesting lines of questioning to the final select panel.  The selection panel recommends the best candidate, but the prime minister has a veto to restart the process if necessary.  Appointments are far more open than ten or twenty years ago, and Sir David gave three reasons why he thought open and merit-based appointment was incompatible with ministerial choice.  First, if appointment is on merit then there is no reason why the minister would be better placed to assess this than the selection panel.  Second, the permanent secretary would become personally associated with the minister who chose them making it more likely they would be replaced when their minister moved jobs.  This would be the first step towards politicisation.  Third, the proposition crosses a line of principle that appointment should not be in the hands of any one person, whoever they are, as this risks a return to pre-Northcote-Trevelyan patronage and cronyism.  Sir David felt that the case had not yet been made that ministers choosing permanent secretaries would lead to better government.

Caroline Spelman spoke warmly of her former officials at the Department for the Environment, Farming, and Rural Affairs.  She had a strong relationship with her permanent secretary, and that alignment proved crucial in winning a good settlement in the 2010 Spending Review.  In fact, this relationship is too important for the Secretary of State not to have a more prominent role in choosing their permanent secretary.  She was surprised by how little she was involved in replacing her permanent secretary.  Rather than choosing from a shortlist, Caroline Spelman advocated a power of co-decision, in which the minister would sit on the final selection panel.  They could then represent their interests and the interests of the department, against the interests of the civil service as a whole.  This tension surfaced in other aspects of leading a smaller Whitehall department, such as central departments ‘plundering’ DEFRA for staff leaving the smaller department vulnerable when crises struck.

Ian Davis described a typical private sector recruitment process, in which a nomination committee drawn from a company board would meet to consider candidates for the chief executive position.  The chairman – loosely analogous to the Secretary of State – is always on the committee, which then recommends to the board usually one or two candidates.  The chairman does not formally decide, but it would be rare for an appointment to be made by the board against their will.  There are big differences between the public and private sectors, but in both there is a need to focus on what ‘merit’ means.  There is a need for permanent secretaries to be effective, and this requires a good relationship with the minister.  In the private sector, the idea that you could be accountable for something without any management control over it is inconceivable.  This question of accountability needs to be answered, however permanent secretaries are appointed.  Non-Executive Directors have the potential to play a role balancing the interest of the minister with those of the civil service.

Questions were asked about the role of permanent secretaries, comparisons with judicial appointments, whether shortlisting candidates answered the test of merit, and the role of parliament in appointments.  The speakers agreed both that transparent and open appointments were desirable, and that the current debate has polarised unhelpfully.  All speakers were also concerned about a lack of sufficient succession planning and talent management.  Ian Davis described the way in which recruitment focused on the person rather than recruiting for the job, seeing appointments as guided in part by the need to find jobs for promising Director Generals.  Sir David Normington emphasised the difference made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to his freedom of manoeuvre, believing that the Act empowered the Commission alone to decide what appointment by merit meant.  All the speakers agreed that if greater ministerial involvement led to calls for parliamentary confirmation hearings, this would not be a positive development, as Caroline Spelman believed that parliament’s complicity in appointing someone would blunt their ability to hold them to account.