This paper discusses what lessons the UK government can learn from New Zealand and Australia as it proceeds to reform accountability arrangements in Whitehall.

Frustration over perceived blunders, and a perception of obstructionism in Whitehall, has contributed to ministerial concern about the accountability of the civil service and has reinforced the government’s reformist instincts. The civil service reform plan published in June 2012 sets out proposals to “sharpen” the personal accountability of individual officials in Whitehall – for instance by extending the traditional accounting officer role. At the same time, the government wishes to extend ministerial involvement in the appointment and performance management of senior civil servants, leading to fears of ‘politicisation’ of the civil service.

This paper brings international experience to bear on this debate by considering how the New Zealand and Australian governments have approached these issues over the past two decades. 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.

These two countries provide a rich seam of evidence about the advantages and drawbacks about such reforms. Considering how effective these changes have been in Australia and New Zealand therefore offers a useful starting point for thinking about whether similar moves would be appropriate here.