Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has called for the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service to be separated and for the Civil Service Commission to be given greater independence to drive reform.
Lord Maude’s comments were made to members of the House of Lords Constitution Committee yesterday and come ahead of his review of civil service governance, which Maude told peers he was “eight months pregnant” with.
In a two-hour session, Maude – who masterminded the coalition government’s efforts to reform Whitehall – was quizzed about a consistent lack of progress in fully implementing reform in government over several decades.
He said the principal reason agreed reforms did not materialise was that “there’s no-one in charge” – a direct reference to the lack of a mandate on the part of the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, currently Simon Case.
“The head of the civil service has always been a part-time job, with a very narrow exception 40 years ago,” Maude said. “And even if it were a full-time job, the head of the civil service isn’t empowered, has no mandate to make it happen, because those powers have not been delegated from the prime minister.”
Maude said cabinet secretary and head of the civil service should clearly be two separate jobs.
“I think it's ludicrous to propose that with this huge programme of agreed reforms that consistently doesn’t get implemented or sustained, which is a huge change-management programme, the right person to deliver that, on a part-time basis, is also the right person to be the prime minister’s principal policy adviser and coordinator,” he said.
“You only need to state the proposition to see how completely untenable it is.”
Maude told MPs that a Civil Service Commission with wider-ranging powers and a dedicated head of the civil service with a mandate to deliver reform could be part of the solution.
He said that if long-term reform of the civil service was to be delivered, it would have to be done on a “very bipartisan”, cross-party basis.
“You have to find ways of securing support so that the progress will transcend the electoral cycles and the lifetime of any one administration and will not depend on some annoying person like me being the minister responsible,” he said.
“You’ve got to find some way of what I’m calling the stewardship obligation being driven and held accountable in a way that is separate from the normal accountability of the civil service to the government, to ministers, for the dispatch of the business of the government of the day.”
Maude said that that under the model he is examining the head of the civil service would be held accountable by the Civil Service Commission if the delivery of agreed reforms was “sacrificed to the needs of the government of the day” for other priorities.
The former Cabinet Office minister said he would expect a beefed-up Civil Service Commission to issue an annual report to parliament, and that would be the likely vehicle for detailing reform-programme failings.
“If we are to see a step change in the way in which these long-established, agreed, uncontested reforms of the civil service are to be implemented, I think the Civil Service Commission is a natural place to be the accountability body for a head of the civil service who would be charged with delivering reform,” he said. “And delivering strong organisational health. And the continuous improvement that you will want to see in a great organisation.”
Maude said the Civil Service Commission is “not remotely set up” to deliver the role he envisages at present.
“Its staff are all seconded civil servants, although a report back in 2015 said that should not be the case and that they should have a right to recruit their own staff,” he said.
“The staff are shared with two other Cabinet Office bodies – ACOBA and, I think, the Public Appointments Commissioner – and its budget is set by the Cabinet Office. It’s a bit like saying Ofgem’s budget should be set by British Gas.”
He added: “If it’s to be an independent regulator, then it needs to be properly independent.
“I think it has to be robustly independent of the civil service, robustly independent of ministers and to have a much wider role – including the ability to scrutinise internal appointments, because nobody does that.”
Maude told peers that his report on civil service governance could be published as soon as next month, but stressed that the timing would be a decision for ministers.