Prime minister to pick perm secs from shortlist

Written by Winnie Agbonlahor on 15 October 2014 in News

The prime minister will be able to pick permanent secretaries out of a candidate shortlist from December this year, under new rules announced today – with the first competition to be held under the new process that to replace Sir Bob Kerslake in February as permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Presently, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) recommends only one candidate to the PM, who has the right to either accept or reject that person. But today, the CSC announced that it has agreed a change “under which the prime minister will receive an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of those candidates judged appointable by  the [appointment] panel”, chaired by by first Civil Service Commissioner David Normington (pictured) – and the PM will choose their preferred candidate from this shortlist.  

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude started campaigning for ministers to be able to select their perm secs from a list of approved candidates in 2012, but had his efforts rejected by the commission – partly because the approach wasn’t backed by the majority of Parliament. The commission made changes to increase ministers’ formal involvement in recruitment processes, but following a consultation carried out early this year decided not to implement further reforms.

Last month, however, shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher said at an Institute for Government (IfG) event that Labour now backs Maude’s favoured approach. And at a press briefing on 1 October, Maude commented that “our view remains the same: the prime minister should be given a choice of appointable candidates. And the Labour party now emphatically takes the same view. 

“One of the reasons the CSC gave for not moving down this path was that there was no evidence for political consensus. There now is. Both the coalition parties and the Labour party take that view so that’s an opportunity for them to revisit the decision.”

Normington will continue to approve the panel membership and all aspects of the recruitment process, such as the essential characteristics, job description and advertising strategy. And the commissioners have set down some safeguards to ensure that appointments are on merit: the competition can be paused by Normington if he believes the commission’s recruitment principles are not being followed; the choice of candidate will sit with the prime minister rather than the secretary of state; the panel alone will determine which candidates are put to the prime minister; and where only one candidate is judged to be appointable by the panel, only that name will go forward to the prime minister.

Announcing the commission’s revised proposals, Normington said today that the commission has “been reluctant to go further until we were convinced that the principle of a civil service appointed on merit could be fully protected.

 He added: “The commission has listened to a wide range of voices over the last two years and now accepts that our current approach should be revised for head of department posts – currently around 25 posts. We have been cautious about this change - and remain so - but now believe that with important safeguards this change is possible.

“We recognise that there is now wide consensus for this change – including from the three largest political parties in Parliament and other non-political bodies such as the Institute for Government and current and former senior civil servants including the Cabinet Secretary. Our foremost concern has been to protect the principle of an impartial civil service, appointed on merit and able to serve the government of the day and any future government, whatever their political colour. 
“An important element in our decision has been the assurance from the prime minister and the official opposition that they have no wish to politicise the civil service. We intend to hold them to those assurances. We will monitor closely how this works in practice through our chairing the competitions for these posts and reserve the right to return to our previous position should we feel that the fundamental principles – selection on merit after a fair and open competition - are under threat.” 

Guy Lodge, associate director of think-tank IPPR which recommended the new approach in a report published last year, said: “This is a sensible reform that provides for stronger prime ministerial input into key appointments without risking politicisation.”

And IfG director Peter Riddell said: “We welcome the thrust of the changes and, in particular, the safeguards to protect the principle of non-political civil service. As we said: 'So long as there is a rigorous merit-based assessment preceding the exercise of ministerial choice and appointed candidates are bound by the existing civil service code and values, then there would not be an increased risk of politicisation, but a system that is more accountable and more closely reflects the reality.' 

"We are therefore pleased that this long-running source of tension and debate between the Civil Service and Ministers has been resolved. Of course it is the Secretary of State who will work more closely with the head of the department and will no doubt need to provide their advice to the Prime Minister too.”

Senior civil service union FDA has also been supportive. FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “We broadly welcome today’s announcement, balancing the argument for greater ministerial involvement in selecting heads of department with the fundamental principle of selection on merit.

"Political impartiality is the cornerstone of a permanent civil service but it does not mean - and has never meant - that there can be no ministerial involvement in the process of selection.

“The changes announced today ensure transparency in the selection process and reflect a broad political consensus. We also welcome the assurances given by the prime minister and the official opposition that they have no wish to politicise the civil service.”

See also: our full interview with Sir David Normington

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AW Tanner (not verified)

Submitted on 17 October, 2014 - 09:32
The promotion of civil servants "on merit" was never considered to be a hard and fast rule within the civil service, its about time they admitted to this enormous long-term error.

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