By Tevye Markson

15 Nov 2023

Maude's recommendation-packed review includes calls for an outsider to lead the civil service, new powers for ministers and greater transparency

After weeks of speculation and advance briefings, the government finally published Francis Maude's review into civil service governance and accountability this week.

Maude said the review, launched in July 2022,  had initially been earmarked to last “no more than a few months” but ended up taking over a year,  reflecting “the breadth and complexity of the issues involved, and the time needed to uncover the current arrangements for governance and accountability, both in theory and in practice”.

The review sets out 57 recommendations for making the civil service work better. Here are the highlights. 

'Outsider should head up' civil service

Maude had previously revealed that he wants the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service roles to be split, and the latter role to be given greater authority – following his “extraordinary finding” that the task of running the civil service is not formally delegated to its head.

He goes further than this in the review, arguing the head of civil service role “for the next ten years… should be someone most of whose previous career has been outside the civil service, and much has been in the private sector”.

The HOCS would be responsible for defining and publishing a future operating model of the civil service, and a transition plan to get there including performance targets, investment and budget. They would be entrusted with a “clear mandate” across the whole of the civil service. 

They would also set permanent secretaries’ annual objectives, including for delivering cross-cutting civil service changes, with ministers' approval.

However, Maude argues that support structures for the head of civil service should be more streamlined. He says there should be a single Civil Service Board rather than the current “Byzantine and opaque” structures, as well as more transparency on how the civil service is organised.

He also suggests that the PM’s chief of staff  should attend the traditional “Wednesday Morning Colleagues” meeting of permanent secretaries. Maude wrote that this gathering is "intended to be a means whereby Whitehall permanent secretaries can be briefed on collective decisions made by cabinet and cabinet committees as well as a forum to discuss thematic cross-cutting policy programmes and their progress." 

Former perm secs have criticised the meeting for lacking focus and being distanced from reality. Maude suggests that having the PM's chief of staff in attendance would allow the meeting to cover collective decisions and cross-cutting issues "with full understanding of the nuances" and "ensure that the gathering does not assume institutional significance and further complicate the governance of the civil service".

A more 'proactive' Civil Service Commission 

Maude makes the case for an expanding and strengthening the role of the Civil Service Commission, which regulates recruitment into the civil service. It should be tasked with holding the HOCS to account, he suggests, and be given new powers to oversees internal appointments.

His vision is for a new-look commission which plays “a more proactive role, with focus on improving capability and effectiveness, in line with counterparts in Australia and New Zealand”.

The commission would have powers to oversee and investigate internal appointments at Grade 6 level and above and to annul internal appointments that are “improperly made”, as well as a role in assessing perm secs' performance.

It would also have a full-time first civil service commissioner, employ its own staff rather than relying on civil servant, and set its own budget.

A return to 'open government'?

Maude's review also eyes up “significant” reforms to improve departmental transparency, pointing to a decline since 2015, when the UK was judged to be the most open government in the world by three international organisations.

Recommendations include:

  • Getting secretaries of state to publish annual statements of objectives for the year, with perm secs publishing an accompanying implementation statement on how the objectives will delivered
  • Publishing the evidence and data underpinning policy decisions when they are announced
  • Annual audits of the quality and accuracy of civil servants’ advice, reported to parliament
  • A consistent, government-wide, digital standard for the maintenance of records – currently each department has its own protocol.

All aboard

The review argues for only “modest” changes to departments' non-executive boards, such as ensuring a minister is always present at meetings. 

Maude says calls from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for more consistency, accountability, and transparency in how non-executives are recruited “should be treated with caution” as they could increase churn in senior officials.

“There is certainly a need for greater consistency in some areas – for example the provision of consistent and comparable management information, and in the oversight of government-wide and cross-departmental programmes”, Maude says.

But he also argues “it is invaluable for ministers to be able to recruit non-executive board members who supplement gaps in the minister’s own skill set and experience. Without this flexibility in how a NEBM can provide support to the department, there will be a greater tendency for a minister to seek changes in senior civil service personnel".

'Let them speak': Giving civil servants a voice at cabinet committees

The review also sets its sights on sprucing up cabinet committees, calling for a “more businesslike approach to be embedded in normal times as well as in times of crisis”.

The enhanced ability to get things done during crisis times has been one of the themes of the ongoing Covid Inquiry.

Maude says collective decision taking in government can get closer to “emergency” mode into normal times by letting civil servants speak, letting spads into meetings, and ensuring perm-sec attendance whenever a policy decision is to be made.

“The rules seem to state that cabinet committees are to be attended only by ministers, not special advisers, and that officials, if permitted to attend, are not expected to speak,” the report says.

“It should be routine for officials to attend cabinet committees and to speak - as is already the case with the National Security Council, and as happened during Covid and Brexit preparations, when “crisis mode” was adopted.”

"At any cabinet committee where a policy decision is to be made, the permanent secretary from the department proposing it should present the implementation plan and be ready to answer questions on it, together with the official who is the designated Senior Responsible Owner who is charged with its delivery,” the report adds.

All change in the centre 

The review outlines proposals for a new-look centre of government with an Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet,  an Office of Budget and Management and a streamlined Treasury.

The PM-led, cabinet secretary-supported OPMC would contain the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet and National Security Secretariats and be the cross-government comms function.

The OBM, led by a minister for budget and management and supported by the HOCS, would take charge of civil service management and reform as well current Treasury responsibilities for public spending and major cross-cutting functions like financial management, commercial procurement, and project delivery.

Maude also suggests a shake-up of crossing-cutting functions themselves, arguing that, for several of these governance and accountability have become “fragmented”.

He calls for the civil service to appoint a permanent secretary-level civil servant to lead each major government function.

“Where previously each function had a clear and unambiguous leader at the centre who was responsible for driving effectiveness with one voice across Whitehall, the centre is now frequently providing multiple (and mixed) signals,” the review says.

Cross-departmental programmes ‘need unrestricted probe’

Maude says he was unable to make recommendations on cross-departmental programmes, however, due to restrictions on the review.

He said: “The reality is that the doctrine that dictates that a single accounting officer responsible for a single silo must have an undivided vertical reporting line to parliament for that silo’s budget is an apparently immovable obstacle to the reforms needed to enable success in the complex architecture of a modern government.”

But he added: “My terms of reference preclude me from making recommendations that would alter this doctrine.”

Therefore, Maude calls for a separate review into the governance of and accountability for the implementation of cross-departmental programmes with no restrictions on scope.

The minister’s choice 

Maude argues for much bigger roles for ministers in appointing civil servants, including the PM getting sign-off on director general appointments – as already happens with perm secs – and allowing ministers to appoint their own chief of staff as civil servants. 

His review also argues ministers should be able to sack senior officials at SCS1/2 level, as well as “other posts that are deemed critical by the minister”.

Best minister

But it’s not just civil service appointments which need reform, Maude argues. He also calls for change to how ministers are selected and prepared for the role, arguing “more care” should be taken, especially in the appointment of junior ministers, to ensure that there is a good fit between the individual and the role. Preparation for appointments should start earlier, induction should be “taken more seriously” and there should be an element of “continuous professional development”.

The review, published just as Sunak carried out a government reshuffle which saw the appointment of the 15th housing minister since 2010, also suggests ministers should stay in post for longer.

Maude also argues special advisers should get “basic training” on “civil service terminology and the mechanics of government”.

'Clear up' ALB confusion

Maude also calls for a shakeup of the “confused and confusing” arms-length bodies landscape.

He suggests a sustained programme to map the landscape of ALBs accurately and on a consistent basis; categorise them on the basis of the appropriate governance and accountability arrangements; and introduce improvements across government for reporting into the sponsoring department and the way in which appointments to their boards are made.

The programme of triennial reviews of ALBs should also be revived and include an examination of the relationship with its sponsoring department, the review adds.

The review also echoes the Institute for Government’s calls for the creation of a chief talent officer, who would lead the central appointments unit in the Cabinet Office.

And finally... checking government’s homework

Reviews commissioned by the government into the civil service often lead to little action and rarely lead to change that addresses underlying issues. Perhaps sensing the possibility his review – commissioned by a now-exiled PM – might find a snug spot in the long grass or be picked at for some easy wins,  Maude’s review suggests that “anyone invited to conduct a review into any aspect of the civil service should be invited back two years after submitting their recommendations to assess progress in implementation”. Their follow-up assessment would be published, with ministers having the opportunity to receive written or oral updates directly from the reviewer.

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