By Joshua.Chambers

11 Feb 2013

The government has now published its permanent secretaries’ objectives, listing the targets against which their performance will be assessed. Joshua Chambers explains how the move is likely to affect Whitehall leaders

A few years ago, permanent secretaries were rather private figures: almost invisible to the general public – and even to many politicians and journalists – they built their careers on reputations maintained within a small group of ministers, top civil servants, and select committee chairs.

Not any more: permanent secretaries have for some time been moving into the limelight; and now the government has invited the public to assess their performance. Since December, the departmental chiefs’ objectives have been available online. With the click of a mouse, anyone in the world can now see how the most senior officials in the UK are assessed, scrutinising a set of appraisal targets that will be updated annually.

The move provides a glimpse into the briefcases of the UK’s most powerful officials. But what do the specific objectives reveal about the operation of Whitehall? And how do they compare with the objectives set for other kinds of leaders, both in business and in other nations’ civil services? To pin down the significance and implications of publishing permanent secretaries’ objectives, CSW has spoken to figures at the centre of Whitehall and experts on public administration.

Why publish?
The objectives themselves aren’t new – but, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood tells CSW, “this is the first time they’ve been made publicly available”. Publication was motivated by three factors – the first being the coalition’s desire to change the relationship between citizens and the state. “It’s part of our transparent approach,” says Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. Publishing permanent secretaries’ objectives shows that civil service bosses are “leading from the front” in making their departments less opaque, adds Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service.

There are some teething problems on this point, however. Professor Colin Talbot of the University of Manchester’s business school points out that in terms of clarity and accessibility, the objectives’ publication is “is pretty ropey” because “if you look on the Cabinet Office website for the objectives, you have to be a Whitehall insider or waste a lot of time to find out what they are. They’ve just listed the objectives by the name of the permanent secretaries, without any indication of what department they belong to.” The objectives aren’t easily visible on departmental websites or; only those who know what to look for are likely to find them.

The second aim of publishing the objectives is that it will improve the operation of government. Heywood says that publicly listing the objectives allows departmental staff to see how their permanent secretaries are judged, enabling them to better understand ministerial priorities. And he argues that publication should “lead to an improvement in the quality of these objectives,” because “if we put them out in the public domain so that people can comment on them, it’s bound over time to improve the quality of objective-setting. The better the quality of objective-setting, the more effective permanent secretaries can be”.

Third, the publication of objectives is intended to make permanent secretaries more accountable. Certainly, Maude believes that publication will tighten permanent secretaries’ accountability to ministers, because it makes the relationship between ministers and officials “very open, very explicit”. Some ministers are not getting on well with their permanent secretaries at present – as recent off-the-record briefings in the newspapers demonstrate – but all permanent secretaries’ objectives stress the importance of ministerial feedback as a measure of performance. One permanent secretary, Robert Devereux of the Department for Work and Pensions, even has building “professional relationships with the ministerial team, establishing effective relationships with new ministers” as an objective in its own right.

However, Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, is sceptical of the published objectives’ value to Parliamentary accountability. “They will be a useful checklist for select committees,” he says; but, like departmental business plans, their value will be limited because they don’t set out the details of operational plans or policies.

How the system works
Permanent secretaries’ objectives are produced on a yearly basis, in consultation with the department’s secretary of state, permanent secretary and lead non-executive director, the prime minister and deputy prime minister, the minister for the Cabinet Office, the cabinet secretary and the head of the civil service.

Permanent secretaries are appraised against these objectives twice a year. Kerslake and Heywood have split the responsibility for line managing permanent secretaries – and thus appraising them against their objectives – between themselves, with Kerslake taking the majority. Last year, Maude also put in place a formal process ensuring that feedback is always sought from secretaries of state – it wasn’t previously required – and that these appraisals can affect permanent secretaries’ pay. “We have bonuses potentially available to a small proportion of the team. Clearly whether people meet their objectives will be an important factor in whether they receive these,” Heywood says.

The objectives are split into three themes – business delivery, capability building, and corporate aims – with measures of success and key milestones set out for each. The first two are determined by departmental priorities, while the third includes aims that are universal and requested by the centre of government. For example, says Heywood, “all permanent secretaries have got an objective to advance the growth agenda: that isn’t necessarily the first business of all departments, but the prime minister and deputy prime minister made clear they want [permanent secretaries] to make a contribution” to boosting GDP. The objectives also make explicit that permanent secretaries must deliver civil service reform objectives, and achieve the level of savings set out in the efficiency and reform plans that departments negotiated with the Cabinet Office.

Maude believes these cross-cutting objectives will ensure greater traction for the Cabinet Office’s priorities than has been achieved to date. He’s previously expressed his belief that some permanent secretaries have been deliberately “obstructing” policies, and clearly hopes that publishing these objectives will reduce the wriggle-room available to recalcitrant departmental chiefs. “One of the things that is very clearly in the objectives is the ERG [Efficiency and Reform Group] objectives, which are specific and measurable, and won’t necessarily have been a priority for permanent secretaries or something you would expect them to wake up in the morning thinking about, but which are important,” he says.

Tensions and targets
However, while the cross-cutting objectives are set centrally, some of the performance measurements – which translate those objectives into the specific, measurable results expected of perm secs – are still set by departments; and hence some are more stretching than others. For example, Martin Donnelly of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills doesn’t have any milestones to achieve in the delivery of civil service reform objectives, and the only measure of his performance against these objectives is “specific measurable achievable realistic timely [SMART] objectives reflecting ministerial policies”.

In part, this variation between departments reflects the fact that departmental heads are legally responsible for all the spending they oversee – and with that responsibility must come the power to determine how it is spent. Permanent secretaries are “constitutionally independent of the centre because they are accounting officers responsible for their own departments,” explains Patrick Diamond, a researcher at the University of Manchester and former Number 10 adviser. This constitutional position renders “questionable” the power of cross-cutting objectives, he believes, and explains why some departments are more specific than others in setting out milestones for cross-cutting objectives. Kerslake explains that he can’t give “the exact details on why Martin’s [performance targets] look different to some of the others,” but adds that “all of them will have an expectation of delivery on the reform priorities to the timetable agreed for the [Civil Service Reform] Plan”.

Ngaire Woods, the dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, believes there is also a potential tension between incentivising permanent secretaries to achieve ministerial aims – which are likely to focus on narrow departmental goals – and building a culture where departments work together. “The one goal I would be looking for, if I were reviewing the goals of a permanent secretary, would be whether that person had helped another department achieve something,” she says. “It’s such a waste to have them working against each other, which they do unless you put in an incentive to have them collaborate and cooperate.”

Notably, Una O’Brien of the Department of Health does have “360 degree feedback from other government departments” as one of her performance measures. Meanwhile, in response to Woods’ broader point, Heywood says: “I don’t think there’s a danger that permanent secretaries will focus on just what the department needs.” He’s confident that permanent secretaries recognise the wider priorities of government, he says, and they’ve bought into the cross-cutting agendas of efficiency and reform.

One difficulty experienced when setting any objective is ensuring clarity and avoiding conflicting aims. On this point, Talbot suggests that Ursula Brennan, the Ministry of Justice’s top civil servant, will have a difficult balancing act to perform: she has to perform against departmental targets, the Transforming Justice programme, the justice secretary’s five priorities, and her own individual performance objectives.

“She’s got four different documents; I would be amazed if all of those have been reconciled properly. The experience in the past is that you have overlapping or conflicting objectives,” he says. Under the Labour government, he argues, public service agreements, departmental objectives, delivery plans, permanent secretaries’ objectives, and business plans for departmental quangos “rarely matched up with one another. Nobody had an overview of how they fitted together and whether they fitted together”. Asked for a comment, the ministry said: “Ursula Brennan’s objectives reflect ministerial priorities which are also the focus of the Transforming Justice programme and the Business Plan. In addition she has corporate objectives that support delivery of ministerial priorities.”

Rigid rules, subjective objectives
If permanent secretaries are to be measured against fixed objectives, what happens when the priorities of a department change? For example, when the Department for Transport botched the franchise of the West Coast Mainline, the new permanent secretary Philip Rutnam had to act fast to reorganise the department and improve some capabilities. As it happens, Rutnam does have tackling those problems among his objectives – but only because of the timing of his appraisal. Had the problems occurred after his objectives had been set, his appraisal targets could have been in direct conflict with the needs of his department. Heywood says these kinds of issues will be handled on a “case by case basis. Clearly, we’re not going to adhere slavishly to objectives if they’re out of date”. Kerslake adds that “we would want to keep them as consistent as possible during the year – but if something very big happens” the objectives could be amended.

However, Woods says that written objectives are in themselves rather a limited tool; they can’t capture all the facets of leadership in the public sector, and they risk distorting permanent secretaries’ priorities towards more easily-measured goals. “A lot of what you do in a public service organisation that’s crucial to the advancement of the goals of that organisation is not measurable,” she says. “You’re trying to build, for example, a culture of contribution, of diligence, of integrity, of impartiality, of service. Not all of those things are equally capturable in targets.” Stephanie Bird, director of HR capability at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, agrees that the permanent secretaries’ objectives “don’t say enough about the type of culture they’re trying to build. They don’t say anything about trust or openness, or behaving with integrity, or the values they’re working with”.

Bird does believe, however, that the objectives compare well with those found in private sector organisations. “They’ve got a clear format that they’re following, and it’s positive that they’re focusing very strongly on the delivery of corporate objectives,” she says. “If you look across many organisations, they often focus on the delivery of the business, so sales or growth, but don’t always talk about the need to build the capability in teams to do that.” While some of the milestones are “a little bit ill-defined”, Bird also notes that there’s a “very strong focus on performance management” – which, she believes, will lead to better administration.

International comparisons
How does the publication of permanent secretaries’ objectives in the UK compare with the situation in other countries? “We are certainly in the front rank on this across the world,” Kerslake says. Indeed, the coalition is currently examining international systems of civil service accountability – with particular emphasis on the New Zealand model, where public sector leaders are contractually bound to focus on published departmental objectives. Even New Zealand doesn’t publish permanent secretaries’ personal objectives, however, instead publishing departments’ statements of intent relating to the aims of the organisations themselves.

Woods notes, though, that there is an increasing trend across the world to make public sector leaders more accountable through the publication of information. For example, the IMF has published the contract of its managing director, Christine Lagarde, including her terms and conditions, salary, and ethical responsibilities. Meanwhile, UN agencies are publishing some of their performance criteria, Woods says.

Given that the UK is leading the way by publishing permanent secretaries’ objectives, it’s difficult to learn from the experiences of other countries; instead, the UK can only learn from its own mistakes. “This is a learning process,” Heywood says. “We’re not going to get everything right first time around.”

In most cases, examining the objectives in detail doesn’t throw up any major surprises – with a few notable exceptions (see box). But, combined with other moves to make British civil servants more directly accountable to ministers – including a greater role for secretaries of state in appointing permanent secretaries (see news) – the publication of permanent secretaries’ objectives represents a further move towards the centre stage for departmental chiefs.

So, while the UK has commissioned a study to examine other countries’ systems of accountability, other democracies will surely now be studying the impact of publishing British permanent secretaries’ objectives. And one thing seems certain: as far as public administration goes, the global trend is away from privacy and towards publicity. With top officials subject to ever-growing exposure via the press, select committees, social media and now public scrutiny of their performance objectives, the days of Whitehall’s invisible backroom operators are increasingly becoming a distant memory.

For CSW's opinion, also see Editorial

The full list of permanent secretary objectives can be found here

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