By Suzannah.Brecknell

02 Dec 2013

The government wants to give ministers more power in Whitehall; others have called for a major review of our civil service. Asking the views of former secretaries of state, Suzannah Brecknell encountered sympathy for both ideas.

Among the many reforms set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan – and pursued in the follow-up One Year On report – there are a small group of changes which have attracted vociferous and unusually public opposition from senior figures close to the civil service, and from politicians across the spectrum. These are the reforms to ministerial private offices and permanent secretary appointments, aimed – the government says – at improving both support for ministers, and departments’ responsiveness to their political masters’ agendas. Critics suggest these reforms substantially shift the balance of power from civil servants towards ministers, with the risk of undermining both impartial policy advice and the service’s political neutrality.

The idea that civil servants sometimes aren’t willing or able to implement ministers’ desired reforms is not a new one: Tony Blair famously talked of the scars on his back after his attempts to push through public sector reforms. In recent times, however, ministers have become more – and more publicly – critical of civil servants. High-profile delivery failures haven’t helped here (the West Coast mainline franchising programme is a high-profile example), but there is also growing resentment amongst a group of Tory ministers who see the civil service as an obstacle to change: Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has spoken of officials blocking his reforms to civil service procurement. Relations between ministers and civil servants have deteriorated, with anonymous briefings against individual civil servants (see news), and ministers’ allies openly suggesting that their civil servants are just not up to the job of delivering policy reforms. The government’s package of reforms to accountability is designed to make permanent secretaries and private offices more responsive to ministers’ wishes.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to address both these tensions and the agenda around civil service reform, the Public Administration Select Committee has argued that a parliamentary commission should consider the civil service’s future; the government’s lead non-executive director Lord Browne has suggested that a royal commission should be established, with the same aims. The idea has been quickly rejected by Maude.

CSW wanted to gather views on these ideas from an audience which is well-informed about the issues, yet has no personal stake in the outcome. Both civil servants, and serving and would-be ministers, have a clear interest in these reforms – so instead we approached former secretaries of state: people with great experience in this field, but less of a vested interest in backing or challenging the current government, or in pinning recent delivery failures on civil servants or ministers. We also sought the views of former senior civil servants on the findings of our survey.

We contacted all the surviving former secretaries of state (99 in total, from every administration since Margaret Thatcher’s first in 1979), and asked for their views on both the idea of a high-level review of the civil service, and on government’s proposed changes to ministerial private offices and permanent secretary appointments. Twenty-eight individuals replied, and their responses are set out below.

Why is a commission needed?
Asked whether they support “the creation of a high-level panel to consider the skills and capabilities of the civil service”, 75% of respondents said yes, with consensus across the political divide (see Figure 1 and box below). The survey included space for free-text comments, in which several former ministers suggested that a commission is needed because of declining standards in the civil service. Sir John Nott, a Tory minister in the 1970s and 1980s, believes there has been “a real deterioration in the quality of the civil service” since he left office. “Having been a huge admirer of the civil service, I now favour root and branch reform,” he concludes, including considering “whether we should not move towards the US system” of a politically-appointed senior civil service.

Nott says the Freedom of Information Act is partly to blame, arguing that it has “made civil servants more jumpy, selfish, and concerned for their own personal interests and those of the service than those of their minister”. Others laid the blame for declining civil service quality at the feet of past governments. A former Labour minister, for example, suggests that the “fashion, since 1997 particularly, of setting up systems with an endless proliferation of targets, which supposedly imitate private sector systems, has led to a severe deterioration in the quality of public sector management”.

Some former senior civil servants back the idea of a panel, in order to address the tensions in civil service/ministerial relations. Lord Butler, who served as cabinet secretary under three prime ministers, tells CSW that he was initially opposed to the idea, thinking that “these problems could be solved without it”, but the levels of “apparent dissatisfaction of ministers with the civil service” have made him change his mind. He now thinks the problems “are now getting to a point where some sort of commission of inquiry might be useful,”. Similarly Lord Turnbull – cabinet secretary in the mid-2000s – says that “something is going badly wrong at the moment” – though he doesn’t think that a panel could tackle the “unprecedented degree” of public animosity between ministers and civil servants, instead favouring the idea to tackle acknowledged problems in civil service capabilities.

At least one respondent, meanwhile, supports the creation of such a panel specifically in order to consider reforms to the civil service – heading off the government’s current accountability reforms. Lord Robertson, defence secretary from 1997 to 1999, says that a “review is urgently needed before ill-considered steps are taken on the basis of too little evidence.” He is referring to the plans to give ministers the power to personally appoint civil servants, special advisers and external policy experts to form ‘Extended Ministerial Offices’ (EMOs), which were set out in the report Civil Service Reform One Year On, published this July.

Asking the experts
These plan for EMOs attracted much criticism when they were first mooted. Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, expressed fears that the reforms would result in politicisation of ministerial support, saying: “The danger is that ministerial offices staffed by personal appointees will ultimately be loyal to their minister, not the taxpayer.”

Asked about the idea, former secretaries of state were broadly supportive: 62% of respondents are behind the plans (see Figure 2), with 38% opposed. However, here there is a clear split along party lines: former Tory ministers opposed the plans by a small majority, whilst their Labour peers supported them by 2.5:1. This difference could reflect a level of small-c conservatism among Tories, and a generational split: all of our Conservative respondents held office before 1997.

p6 Special Report figure 2 580px

Comments made by those who support the proposals mostly focused on the potential of EMOs to address skills shortages at the top of the civil service, largely in providing expert advice and implementation support. A former Labour minister, for example, speaks of a lack of analytical and commercial skills in private offices, while the LibDem Chris Huhne noted that a “major implementation problem in government” requires more capability to chase projects and “to put things right at the policy level when implementation hits real obstacles.”

Even among those who did not support the proposals, or were cautious about them, there was a recognition that ministers may need advice or support beyond that which their departments can offer. Former Tory minister Lord Jenkin, though he opposed the proposals, said: “If a minister wants expert advice on an area of policy or management where experience suggests the department is ‘out of its depth’, he should be able to require the appointment of an expert chosen by the minister.”

Former special adviser Mario Dunn, who worked with Labour’s Alan Johnson in four departments over five years, echoes the need for greater specialist advice for ministers – particularly in tricky or specialist policy areas. He gives the example of the long-running NHS National Programme for IT, which successive health secretaries struggled to control. As a special adviser at the health department, he says, “I would’ve loved to be able to have access to someone who was not going to obfuscate and try and cloud the issue.”

All of the former senior civil servants spoken to by CSW are also supportive of giving ministers more access to external advice when needed, with Butler noting that a “wise” minister will seek advice from as many sources as possible. Even the FDA, which voiced concerns about the risks posed by EMOs, has always agreed with the objective of giving ministers sufficient expert support.

Crossing a rubicon?
The comments also show, however, that many former ministers remain cautious of any encroachments into civil service independence. “The principle of independence in the civil service is really valuable and important,” says one former Labour minister, who supports the idea of EMOs. “I’d be keen to see politically-supportive expertise brought in – my own special advisers fell into this category – but I’d be strongly opposed to political appointments in the permanent civil service.” Another former Labour minister, Dame Margaret Beckett, says she’s open to the idea of appointing more spads, or creating a ‘cabinet’ system of politically-appointed officers outside the permanent civil service, but is “quite nervous about the notion that within the civil service how you get on with ministers, and whether you share their political views, should further your career.”

These concerns over the risk of politicisation have largely been addressed under the rules set out last month by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) to govern appointments to EMOs. Individuals employed under these rules would be appointed as civil servants, bound by the Civil Service Code, on a non-renewable fixed term of up to five years, and managed by another civil servant, not the minister. There would also be a number of safeguards: for example, that the commission would have to give specific approval for the appointment of any individuals who’ve previously worked for that minister, one of their party colleagues, or their political party within the last five years.

If the commission’s rules are adopted – and it has a formal statutory role in the appointments system – then ministers would only be allowed to create EMOs with approval of the prime minister, and the departments would have to give details of the appointments in the annual compliance statements sent to the CSC.

These rules “go to the heart of concerns about politicisation”, according to the FDA’s Penman, who tells CSW that the union now feels able to support the reforms. The commission’s plans are a “really good way of trying to find a balance between the demands of ministers for greater support, and the necessity to have that political objectivity that’s at the core of the civil service,” he says.

Size matters
There are, however, remaining concerns about the reforms – particularly around the size of private offices, and the reforms’ impact on the rest of the department. One Tory minister, who supports the proposals, says that “it will need watching that it does not get overdone, and create what are in effect personal fiefdoms for the advancement of individual secretary of states’ political careers at public expense.” The concern that EMOs may become too big is echoed by Sue Street, former permanent secretary at the culture department and Home Office, and now a non-executive director at the Ministry of Justice.

Street is supportive of the broad aim of EMOs but has “serious reservations” about the specific proposals, mainly that “it’s not very flexible” and that increasing the size of ministerial offices may create more problems than it solves. “A very small number of completely trusted individuals would serve a minister better than having a kind of standing army,” she says, adding that with “anything more than six or seven people” a whole extra series of processes and rivalries spring up. She suggests bringing in expertise more flexibily: one home secretary she worked with, she notes, “had regular lunches with commentators and experts from all sorts of different fields collected around whatever issue he wanted to discuss at the time.”

Her concerns about rivalries are shared by Lord Robertson, who notes that if too many external advisers are appointed it could create “a rival private office, and tensions that would come from that might be exploited in some very grey areas.”

Increasing the size of ministerial offices also brings cost implications. Although Cabinet Office guidance has not yet been published on the new EMOs, newspaper reports last week suggested ministers could have up to 10 new advisers, with their salaries paid out of existing budgets. “Ministers are going to have to account for the fact that they are extending ministerial offices at a time when departments are shrinking,” says Penman, but “one of the advantages of this process [as set out by the CSC] is all of that will be visible”: accounting officers will have to provide details of EMO appointments as part of their annual compliance statement to the commission.

Lord Turnbull, who is strongly opposed to these reforms, suggests that creating EMOs would not only create potential problems for the department if ministers “cherry-pick” the most talented people for their own teams, but also “create a gulf between the ministerial cadre” and the department.

The relationship between ministerial offices and their departments has become “weaker and weaker in recent years, to the point where a kind of frontline trench warfare exists – as we see in the Department for Work and Pensions, for example,” he says. “That relationship ought to be strengthened, and not weakened.” His main objection to the reforms, however, is that they do not address what he sees as the real problems hampering policy implementation, such as weak supplier and project management. “This is all about one particular part of [the policy] cycle: the ideas,” he says, “and it’s not the bit where the problem is. The problem is in thorough examination of evidence and implementation. [This reform] does absolutely nothing to strengthen those crucially weak areas.”

Picking permanent secretaries
The second way in which government wants to make the civil service more responsive to ministers is by giving elected leaders a bigger say in the appointment of permanent secretaries. Last year, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude called for the creation of a system under which the Civil Service Commission would produce a shortlist of suitable candidates, and the secretary of state would choose which to appoint.

The plans were set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan, published in July 2012, but were put on hold after strong opposition from the Civil Service Commission. Instead, the commission set out reforms to give secretaries of state a louder voice in the recruitment process, while leaving the final decision to the first civil service commissioner and – through his power to veto candidates – the prime minister. Maude indicated that he would wait to see how these reforms play out before pushing for further change, suggesting government would wait a year and review the situation. He has, however, continued to argue the case for more changes, saying at a think tank event in June that government “would like to go further” than the “modest” changes set out by the commission.

Most respondents to our survey– 17, or 61% – were in favour of waiting to see how the Commission’s reforms work (see Figure 3), but within this group respondents were more likely to be sympathetic to Maude’s proposals than to believe these limited reforms will suffice. A further 11 of our 28 respondents have already made their minds up, with four firmly opposed to Maude’s idea, and seven definitely in favour.

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Lord Turnbull is broadly supportive of the proposals to give elected leaders a greater say in permanent secretary appointments, though he adds the proviso that it should be the PM, not the secretary of state, who makes the choice. This is the position set out in the IPPR report which Maude commissioned to consider ways to improve the “responsiveness and accoutnability” of the civil service; and Turnbull argues that the prime minister, with advice from the cabinet secretary, can take a more strategic view of the skills needed across government, and make choices which serve the needs of the whole government rather than individual departments or ministers. It would also help to address the concerns that appointment by the secretary of state would undermine a permanent secretary’s responsibilities as accounting officer, as they’ll be less able to challenge instructions on value for money grounds if they owe their job to that minister.

Former special adviser Mario Dunn raises two further concerns about on increasing the role of elected leaders in perm sec appointments. The first is that permanent secretaries don’t just serve ministers, but also run large organisations. “The permanent secretary is in effect the head of HR, the accounting officer, and has potentially thousands of people under their leadership,” he says. “If those people think that he or she is just there as a political appointment, it could make their job very difficult from day one.”

Secondly, he suggests that increasing political choice in the appointment process may just be “Tory shorthand for: ‘We want business people in senior roles’, and for me all the history shows that doesn’t work.” He explains that “the civil service and businesses are so diametrically different in the way they operate, culturally and socially,” that it’s hard for a business leader to come in and effect real changes within the civil service. “It rarely works at ministerial level, and I don’t think it would necessarily work at permanent secretary level.”

The underlying weaknesses
The reforms to EMOs and proposed reforms to perm sec appointments may address the issue of responsiveness to ministers, but as Turnbull notes, it’s not clear that they would address other weaknesses in the civil service, particularly those around implementation and skills.

These weaknesses were reflected in the comments made by former secretaries of state, with one former labour minister citing a “woeful lack of commercial, procurement, financial and project management skills” in the civil service, and adding that “compared with the leading strategy and business consultancies, the civil service has been very slow to create serious analytical and policy tools and is surprisingly weak in identifying and learning lessons from international experience.”

But the survey respondents were not just critical of the civil service. A former minister with experience as a civil servant noted that ministers “come and go, usually with big egos, and little experience in their departmental subject matter”, and argued that they must “respect the expertise of the department”.

These remarks are echoed by a former Tory minister who says that “much of the present discussion arises from the fact that we have a very inexperienced group of ministers who have arrived in office with no clear idea about what they wanted to do with power. This puts civil servants in the unenviable position of having to lead the ministers instead of supporting them.”

One Labour politician, although in favour of “a high-level panel to consider the very deep-seated problems in the civil service,” adds that “politicians also have to take their share of responsibility”. They argue that “a blame culture, compounded by constant public criticism and hostile media briefings – especially when combined with a pay freeze – are making it impossible for the civil service to recruit and retain the best people and to work in relationships of trust with ministers.”

Lord Turnbull echoes these comments, suggesting that alongside problems with civil service capabilities, there is an “unprecedented degree” of animosity between ministers and officials, with ministers treating any questioning of their policies as “foot-dragging” and “insubordination” rather than a legitimate challenge to a flawed idea. “They need a different attitude; they need to recognise that the civil service is an asset, and work out a way of making the best use of it,” he says, adding that the idea “that they can shrink a department to a small EMO and bypass the civil service… is a delusion.”

The proposed changes to ministerial private offices are not stand-alone reforms: they’re just a small part of a much wider programme of reform that seeks to improve the capabilities and leadership of the whole civil service. But as Turnbull and Dunn suggest, there’s a risk that creating EMOS and giving political leaders a greater say in permanent secretary appointments will create a gulf between the top tiers of government and the vast majority of civil servants. The proposed reforms might offer ministers a more compliant interface with the civil service, but they risk weakening their connections with the wider civil service – whose support and cooperation are essential not only to civil service reform, but also to all of the government’s policy objectives.

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