By Matt Ross

22 Aug 2014

First civil service commissioner Sir David Normington is normally the one asking the questions: it's his job to chair top-level Whitehall recruitments. Matt Ross turns the tables, quizzing Normington on his battle to defend an impartial civil service. Photos by Mark Weeks.

In 1854, the Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended that civil servants be appointed on merit in open competitions, with the process regulated by a Civil Service Commission (CSC). It says something about the pace of Britain’s constitutional evolution that it took more than 150 years before the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act put those principles on a statutory footing. And it says just as much about how fast things can move in contemporary politics that, just three years after the Victorian reformers’ plans became law, the civil service commissioner was using his new powers to block government reforms that he viewed as a threat to these same principles.

Ever since 2011, when Sir David Normington left the Home Office permanent secretary’s role for the job of first civil service commissioner, he’s been fending off Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s attempts to strengthen ministers’ influence on civil service appointments. And it appears that – at least for the duration of this Parliament – the commissioner has won the day: Normington rewrote the guidance on permanent secretary appointments in 2012 to emphasise and clarify ministers’ participation in the selection process, but a CSC consultation has since resulted in a decision to halt further reforms. Meanwhile, Maude’s plan for ‘extended ministerial offices’ – enabling politicians to bring in more private office advisers and policy specialists – has lost momentum since the commission published restrictive recruitment rules last October: no secretary of state has yet exercised their option to set up an ‘EMO’.

For Normington, though, these attention-grabbing conflicts provide a distorted picture of the commission’s work. “If we’re not careful, my whole time here will be characterised as a period when the commission has been in disagreement with the government,” he says, a rueful look skewing the edges of his trademark beaming smile. “But actually, this government has been staunch on protecting the current model of the civil service: the prime minister has given assurance after assurance that he doesn’t want to undermine that. I don’t think there is a deep disagreement of principle about the model”.

Both sides, he points out, agree that ministers should have a say in top appointments, and that the civil service should remain impartial: the only conflict is exactly how to strike the balance between these two requirements. They may clash over this “specific and important” matter, he acknowledges, “but it’s a small issue compared to the whole field. When I sit down with Francis Maude, we don’t talk about that issue. We talk about the reforms that are needed to leadership; the way in which you recruit skills from outside; the barriers to internal development and external competition. Those are things which we violently agree on.”

When Normington first took the job, he recalls, his intention was “not to have an argument with government, but to improve the quality of recruitment”. A civil servant for nearly four decades, he had a track record of specialisation in staff development and recruitment issues, and a reputation for delivering ministers’ objectives in difficult circumstances. This is the guy who kicked off Blair’s schools reforms at the education department, and broke up the Home Office for John Reid. Behind that warm smile lies a very shrewd operator – but few had imagined him as the type to publicly face down a minister.

It must have been a relief, then, when in April Normington turned from the appointments clash back to general staffing matters – issuing simplified recruitment principles that will, he hopes, improve job competitions at every level of the hierarchy: “The real innovation was that they cover much more clearly the whole civil service,” he says; previous guidance had concentrated on more senior roles.

As well as clarifying and streamlining recruitment processes, the new guidelines explain when departments may make ‘Exceptions’ to the rules – sidestepping open competitions and tight adherence to appointment on merit. This is often perfectly legitimate, says Normington – to cope with peaks in workload, for example, or to rapidly recruit specialist skills. However, the number of Exceptions has been steadily creeping up, and in 2013-14 at least 3,900 jobs were handed out without open competitions: 15% of the total.

As the commission said in its annual report, published in June: “We are concerned that some departments may be using the Exception rules to avoid fair and open competitions when making senior appointments.” In response, the commission has expanded the requirement that departments seek its approval before appointing under an Exception – a change which, the report notes, was “generally not supported from within government” – and this autumn it will investigate the rise in numbers. “Every Exception is an Exception from the rules of fair and open competition, and sometimes it will be legitimate, but that’s quite a big number,” comments Normington. “We need to know why that’s happening.”

Does the rise suggest a creeping politicisation of the civil service, as ministers use Exceptions to bring in former party staff and sympathetic policy wonks? That’s not his biggest worry: “The greater risk is that both ministers and civil servants say: ‘Oh, it’s such a long process getting people in by normal routes of recruitment, we need to fill this post now’,” he replies. “The danger is that as soon as you do that, people say: ‘I know someone who can fill that post.’ What that then becomes is a sort of network of patronage.”

The original Northcote-Trevelyan rules, he adds, “were about stopping that, because we need to ensure that people are brought in because they’re good, not because of who they know.” Just look at the gender split among senior staff appointed under Exceptions, says the commissioner: the vast majority are men. “And that’s exactly the risk you run – that a group of men say: ‘Actually, I know another group of men who could get in here.’ You’re not going to get a more diverse civil service that way.”

This threat is particularly problematic because progress on diversity – particularly ethnic diversity – has stalled in the senior civil service. About 10% of civil servants are black or minority ethnic (BME) but the figure for SCS is half that, and the proportion of BME staff being promoted into the SCS has declined in most departments (p1 & p8, CSW 14 May). “Diversity is the issue for the civil service as it moves forward, because in the next five years we need to see a breakthrough,” says Normington. Having briefly fielded a couple of BME departmental heads, he adds, the civil service has since lost ground: he’d always assumed that ethnic minorities’ progress into the senior ranks would shadow that of women, but “it doesn’t seem to be happening as quickly or as consistently as it needs to.”

It “doesn’t send the right signals”, Normington notes, that the civil service’s diversity strategy has been allowed to expire: he urges departmental chiefs to take on the agenda themselves. “The challenge is to bring BME employees through into middle and senior management, and the barriers are clearly still there,” he says. “The civil service needs to look at its own promotion processes.” Questions should also be asked about its performance management systems, he says – but whatever the cause, the result is a real challenge: a shortage of BME staff in the SCS grades from which most perm secs are recruited. “There isn’t the pipeline of people coming through at that level, and that is a problem.”

Hopefully, the civil service’s work to improve its talent management programmes will help address this problem – and Normington is full of praise for the government’s drive to identify and support talented and ambitious individuals. There was a push to improve talent management back in 2007-9, he recalls, but it “concentrated on the top levels”: that helped to solve the immediate problems, but “long-term, you need to invest in the middle and junior levels, because that means you’ll have a flow-through.” The new talent management initiatives, he believes, have “plugged that gap” – but they’re no quick fix: “You won’t see the benefits for some time.”

Nor are they a complete fix. The civil service will always need to recruit some specialists in wider jobs markets – and returning economic growth is making this harder, as private sector pay starts to rise again. The annual report notes that “we are increasingly seeing evidence that the uncompetitive levels of pay offered – particularly in skill shortage areas – are an impediment to attracting suitable applicants,” and points out that the number of open competitions that don’t result in an appointment has risen from 11 to 16% in a year.

As the civil service competes with private businesses in fields such as IT, finance, digital and commercial, says Normington, “you may have to pay more, and you may have to be more flexible about the terms you offer. If you’re going into the market, you have to go in with the tools to do a recruitment.” Indeed, he’d like to see higher pay offered for more generalist leadership roles, “because we need to have really effective leadership in the civil service, and it won’t all come from inside.”

In some of the parts of the civil service that compete most directly with private businesses for specialist staff – defence procurement and highways construction – we’ve seen agency chief executives trying to extract their organisations from the civil service in a bid to escape Treasury pay caps. This is “rather a drastic step, as a way to solve a problem which you could solve by having more flexibility in recruitment and in terms and conditions,” says Normington. “Giving that flexibility would be an easier solution than having a major reorganisation of government.”

The commissioner’s sublime smile frays again at the idea that “you can only have freedoms if you leave the civil service. Why would you say that? It means that the aim of having a more effective civil service is not going to be achieved.” He’d much rather see organisations follow the route eventually taken by Defence Equipment & Support, which has been granted greater freedoms by the Treasury whilst retaining its civil service status. “I really applaud that,” he says. “If it works, it’ll be an alternative to saying: ‘We have to go right out of the civil service’.”

These pay constraints are unlikely to be a major obstacle in the most urgent task now lying in Normington’s inbox: the recruitment of the government’s new ‘chief executive’, whose appointment was announced during last month’s reshuffle (see p4, p15, p17). The commissioner, who’ll chair the appointment board, has welcomed the creation of a full-time, permanent secretary-level job focusing on civil service reform. If necessary the Treasury will surely waive its pay controls, but choosing the right candidate could still be a delicate piece of work: the chief executive will be permanent secretary to Francis Maude, the minister who’s pushed hardest for more political control over top-level appointments.

After rewriting the guidance for permanent secretary appointments in 2012, Normington faced further pressure from Maude to allow ministers to choose their perm sec from a list of approved candidates. The commissioner pushed back in early 2013, insisting that legislation would be required to make such a change; and he remained unmoved by external research commissioned by Maude, which also called for ministerial choice. In early 2014, Normington consulted on a compromise – ministers would have a choice if the appointment panel found two candidates equally matched – but the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) opposed even this reform, and Normington stuck with the existing system.

The CSC is, he says, in favour of strengthening civil service accountability: he backs moves to make top officials take personal responsibility for signing off major projects, for example, “but I don’t think it follows that ministers have to decide who these people are; I think those are two separate things.” The government, he adds, “continues to say – and I believe it – that it doesn’t want to change the model of an impartial civil service. So the argument is actually about whether them having more choice will change that, even though they don’t want to.”

And here’s the nub of it. Ministers think that their choosing permanent secretaries wouldn’t substantially undermine the impartiality of the civil service; but Normington believes that incoming governments would then want to replace perm secs appointed by their predecessors, eating away at the model of a permanent civil service. “It is particularly important that the civil service can serve the next government,” he says. “We mustn’t put that at risk.”

This fear that relatively small changes could substantially alter the operation of government explains why Normington put up a fight on what can look like a fairly arcane point. But in the end, the decision was taken out of his hands: PASC’s opposition dealt Maude’s plans a mortal blow. “We were set up by Parliament; we have a statutory responsibility which is set for us by Parliament; PASC is the committee that oversees our work,” explains Normington. “We really need their support to go ahead even with the limited change we were proposing. We were I think a little bit surprised at their reaction to our proposal, and a little bit taken aback about it, but we did say we were having a genuine consultation. We had to listen to what people said, and PASC is a very important voice for us”

Under its chair Bernard Jenkin, PASC has been pushing hard for a parliamentary commission to consider the future of the civil service. So its opposition to this single reform was rooted, Normington says, in a belief that “you shouldn’t make piecemeal changes.” He agrees that “there is a case for having a more in-depth look at the settlement about the way the civil service operates,” and emphasises the need for any new model to have support across the political spectrum.

“Of course, we hope there would be a coalescing around the model of an impartial civil service,” he adds; but whatever the solution, it would determine the future structure, systems and skills required for government – and that in turn would define “how you choose your permanent secretaries; what kind of expert advisers you need; how you position special advisers; and whether you need extended or external ministerial offices.”

The Civil Service Reform Plan does not, in Normington’s view, represent a big enough review of the operation of government to justify tinkering with the constitutional settlement – so the chief executive tasked with delivering that plan, himself appointed under Normington’s guidelines, will not be able to realise its ambition to give ministers a “stronger role” in appointing departmental chiefs. Nor will Maude have a bevvy of new advisers and policy gurus to shape his input into the CE’s recruitment – for since the extended ministerial office model was codified by the commission in October, none have actually been established.

This may be because Normington’s guidance pulled the EMO’s teeth. “We didn’t say: ‘No, you can’t do it’,” he explains. “We have said: ‘We’re not very keen on it. We’re prepared to give it a go, but we want to put some constraints around it’.” Whilst those constraints assuaged the concerns of many opponents, the commission’s annual report notes that there’s still “considerable unease that EMOs will lead to the politicisation of civil servants and/or the appointment of many more political appointees.” We’ll have to wait until after the election to find out how EMOs work on the ground, says Normington: “It’s very difficult to persuade people to come in before an election when they’re not sure who’s going to be in power,” he points out. “Effectively, the current offer is for a short-term appointment.”

Then the commissioner’s smile again slips a little. “What really frustrates me about the EMOs is that you don’t really need them!” he exclaims. “If the aim is genuinely to bring in people with expertise, specialists, then that can be done through a competition, through short-term appointments [under Exception rules], or by bringing in contractors.” Those approaches would “take all the tension out of it,” he says, and “if you’re looking for expertise, not political appointments, we’ll encourage that. We want to see the civil service being a place of variety and expertise.”

Normington’s comment raises the prospect that the EMO’s backers might in fact be seeking to expand the number of purely political appointments; and here, as on permanent secretary appointments, he’s clearly determined to hold the line. On both fronts his task has been made easier by the 2010 Act, which gave him powers that can only be amended by Parliament – rather than by an order in council, as previously. The Act has provided “very important stability and protection”, he says, and “given the commission the confidence to take the position it has on ministerial choice.”

That confidence has not been dented by the prospect of undergoing the CSC’s triennial review – a Cabinet Office affair, run along similar lines to the one that recently emasculated the Committee on Standards in Public Life. “The commission can’t take its view about important issues on the basis that somebody might try to abolish it, because we don’t serve any one government,” Normington comments. “We’re trying to serve the responsibilities that Parliament has given us, and therefore we look to Parliament to protect us if any one government seeks to undermine us.” Anyway, he adds, “I have no evidence that they’re gunning for the commission. I’m reasonably optimistic that it will be a proper and fair analysis.”

That review, to be led by Ministry of Defence lead non-executive Gerry Grimstone, will examine both of Normington’s regulatory roles – for as well as first civil service commissioner, he’s also the commissioner for public appointments. At the time he took the jobs, some questioned whether this career civil servant – a man who’d spent 37 years delivering for ministers on Whitehall – could make the leap to becoming a regulator: as he recalls, “my challenge was to say: ‘I can stand up for principle, and I am independent of government’.

“Well, as it turned out – and I didn’t seek it in quite this way – I’ve had to do that, haven’t I?” he grins. “I’ve tried to do it in a way which is as constructive as possible, but I’ve also been standing up for some things that I think are important, which I think the government doesn’t agree with. So I’ve probably proved that point.

“I expect when the story of my time comes to be written, they’ll say: ‘He stood up for the civil service against the government’,” he adds. “And I sort of don’t mind that, but actually that isn’t how I really want to be remembered in this role. I’d like to be remembered for improving the quality of recruitment to get the best people.”

So things haven’t worked out quite as Normington – or, indeed, the government – anticipated. Nonetheless, he comments, “I promise you, [this job] is a thousand times easier than running the Home Office!” And he plainly thinks the battle worth fighting: the role, he says, involves “standing up for a civil service which is impartial and objective, and honest and full of integrity, and appointed on merit. That was the remit I accepted, and that’s the legal responsibility I have, and I’ve been standing up for that. It’s been easy, because I believe in it.” And whilst the road has been a rockier one than anticipated, this can’t have been a big surprise. After all, “almost everybody who takes a public appointment at some time finds themselves involved in something difficult, something controversial,” says Normington. “You don’t take a public appointment for a quiet life.” And as the commissioner for public appointments, he should know.

Share this page