Civil service COO and Cabinet Office perm sec role should be split, says Maude

Reforming ex-minister tells MPs he believes “head of civil service” post should alternate between cabinet secretary and COO
Francis Maude appears before PACAC on 12 January 2021

By Jim Dunton

13 Jan 2021

Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has called for the reform of the two most senior Whitehall roles as part of a drive to underscore the importance of operational delivery across the civil service and focus on cross-cutting functions.

Lord Maude told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that the twin role of civil service chief operating officer and Cabinet Office permanent secretary was too much for one person. 

He added that the “head of civil service” role should also alternate between the cabinet secretary and COO to send a strong signal to departments that operational delivery was not second-class in the civil service.

Maude, who led on civil-service reform in the coalition government, is currently feeding insight into successor Michael Gove’s civil service reform programme

His suggestions on reforming Whitehall’s two most senior roles yesterday came in answer to a question from MP Tom Randall, who asked Maude whether he believed the “divide” between policy and operational delivery was closing.

“I don’t think it is particularly improving,” Maude replied. “And until you get the departments which are heavy on operational delivery having permanent secretaries who are operational or technical people, that’s not going to change.

“If it is consistently the case that the people who get the top jobs are the clever policy mandarins then that’s not going to change.”

Maud said all departments should have a “duopoly leadership” with a policy head and an operational head as a way to signal the importance of both elements.

“In the big policy-heavy departments, the policy head would be the permanent secretary and vice-versa in the operational-heavy departments,” he said.

Maude added that those arrangements should be replicated at the top of the civil service, with the COO – currently Alex Chisholm – freed from also running the Cabinet Office.

“I think you should also always also have a cabinet secretary and a full time COO of the civil service as there now is,” he said.

“I think the COO should not be the permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, which is frankly a distraction from the crucial role of leading and driving the cross-cutting functions across the civil service.

“You should always have those two people at the top of the civil service, but the role of head of the civil service should rotate between them.

“At one time, it should be the cabinet secretary, as it is, and frankly – with one exception – has been for a long, long time. The next time it should be the COO. You’re sending a signal, and Whitehall is acutely sensitive to those kinds of signals, that holding one of those technical, functional roles is not a bar to getting to the top.”

Ban SROs from leaving major projects

Maude is no stranger to voicing concerns about the impact of inter-departmental churn among civil servants. In November he called for a ban on staff moving to new roles with different departments unless there was a strong justification.

The former minister told yesterday’s hearing he believed there should be particularly tough rules relating to senior responsible owners of major projects, and that Infrastructure and Projects Authority approval should be required for any moves.

“In terms of actual project management in departments, there’s still far too much rotation of SROs,” Maude said.

“My own view is that with big, major, important projects, you should not be able to change an SRO unless you absolutely have to – because the person has left the civil service – without the consent of the IPA. There is far too much rotation and far too little consistency.”

However, Maude accepted that project-management capability had “certainly improved” in the civil service.

Regionalised pay “probably won’t ever happen”

Elsewhere, Maude accepted that regionalised pay for civil servants was unlikely to ever be introduced, despite the savings potential to match rates with local costs of living.

Answering a question about differences between departments’ pay levels – often cited as a driver of staff churn – the peer said the Conservatives had taken the wrong approach to breaking the standardised pay “monolith” in the 1990s.

“The better one to have broken would have been the one that sets national pay rates regardless of what the costs of living are,” he said.

“If you were going to introduce market ideas into the pay of civil servants, that would have been a better place to start. 

“But I’m very well aware that there are huge sensitivities around that and it probably won’t ever happen. 

“But we found that some departments had progression pay, so your pay automatically increased just by inertia, by staying there. Others, that was not the case. There were huge disparities, which created all sorts of difficulties and perverse incentives.”

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Staff churn ‘means lawyers have better policy knowledge than officers’

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