From September 2012 to December 2013 the Institute for Government ran a programme of work on the issue of accountability in central government – a major theme of the government’s civil service reform agenda. We engaged directly in the reform debate through a series of reports, blogs, events and media interventions. Our final report was published in December 2013, and we are following up on its publication with further events and engagement activities.
Good government requires that those responsible for policy-making, implementation and public expenditure can be held to account for their actions. This is uncontested. Yet how to design accountability structures in Whitehall remains a matter of controversy.
New Zealand and Australia
This report considered how the New Zealand and Australian governments have approached accountability and public service reform. In New Zealand, the approach has been to more clearly differentiate the roles and responsibilities of ministers from departmental chief executives (permanent secretary equivalents). Fixed term contracts and clear performance objectives were also introduced. In Australia, by contrast, reforms in the 1980s strengthened the control of ministers (and the Prime Minister in particular) over officials in response to concerns about an unresponsive bureaucracy.
We held a public event with the New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English MP alongside the UK's Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude which discussed the different experiences of reform.
- Maude focuses on civil service accountability, Financial Times
- Accountability in the Antipodes, Public Finance International blog
- Clarity about the Civil Service: learning from New Zealand, Institute for Government blog
Ministerial private offices
The next report - Supporting Ministers to Lead - looked at the question of whether ministerial private offices provide the right kind of support to enable departmental secretaries of state to carry out their roles effectively. Extending our use of international comparisons, this report considered arrangements in the UK alongside those in the European Commission, Australia and France.
Our research found that traditional private officers are constrained in how they can support ministers to ensure the delivery of their objectives, and lack staff with serious experience in the policy area in question. We therefore recommend that each Secretary of State should have the clear right to request the appointment of a small number of expert advisers, as well as a chief of staff to lead the expanded office. Although not political appointees, ministers should have a significant role in choosing who fills these roles.
- Maude set to announce move to 'extended ministerial offices', Civil Service World
- Ministers to get new powers to appoint civil servants, Guardian
- Ministerial private offices need a boost, Institute for Government blog
Permanent secretary appointments
In June 2013 we published our report on Permanent Secretary Appointments and the Role of Ministers. We argue that secretaries of state should be able to select their permanent secretary from a merit-based shortlist. We also call for more transparency around the use of managed moves, by which appointments are made in Whitehall without any formal process, and for a stronger performance management system for permanent secretaries.
- Ministers 'need final say on permanent secretaries', BBC News
- Let's limit ministers' choice when appointing permanent secretaries, Guardian
- Whitehall's permanent revolution, Public Finance blog
- Ministers and Whitehall mandarins need to get a grip, Telegraph comment
- Much ado about nothing? The row over ministerial involvement in permanent secretary appointments, Institute for Government blog
- Ministerial involvement in civil service appointments, Institute for Government blog
Accounting officers in central government
- Future directions for the Accounting Officer system, Institute for Government blog
Civil service accountability to Parliament
As part of its civil service reform agenda, the government is seeking to strengthen civil service accountability to Parliament. Meanwhile, in Westminster, MPs question whether the traditional conventions for this process are effective. Based on interviews with MPs and officials in both Westminster and Whitehall, our report on Civil Service Accountability to Parliament examines the state of the relationship between select committees and the government departments they scrutinise.
- Changing the relationship between the civil service and Parliamentary committees could improve accountability, Democratic Audit UK blog
- Revising the Osmotherly Rules: a cure for ailing accountability?, Institute for Government blog
Civil service legislation
- Civil service legislation - international comparisons and the case for more clarity, Institute for Government blog
- How to stop the strife between ministers and civil servants, Conservative Home
This project was led by Akash Paun, supported by Josh Harris and working under the oversight of Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government. Others who contributed to the research included Sir Ian Magee and Pepita Barlow. Various other Institute staff - including Julian McCrae, Jill Rutter and Nadine Smith contributed to our analysis and conclusions.
For further information about our work in this area, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org