Editorial: a narrow debate on a broad issue

Francis Maude’s tweaks to a core facet of our democracy have the support of key players. But what about everybody else?

By Matt Ross

17 Nov 2014

When first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington spoke to CSW in the summer, he seemed to have fended off Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s plans to amend the process for appointing permanent secretaries. Ever since 2012, Maude had pressed for politicians to select their preferred perm sec from a shortlist of people deemed appointable by the Civil Service Commission-led selection process, rather than simply having the ability to veto a single recommended candidate. But the commission had resisted this change, its resolve stiffened by the lack of cross-party consensus, the statutory powers granted it in 2010, and the support of the Public Administration Select Committee. PASC oversees the commission’s work, and its chair Bernard Jenkin argued that any such changes should be left to a parliamentary inquiry into the civil service.

Then shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher announced Labour’s conversion to the shortlist idea – and this straw broke the commission’s back. Deciding to make an orderly retreat rather than be routed by legislation in the next Parliament, Normington gave way on the key point whilst setting out safeguards to help protect the principle of appointment on merit.

“While the changes appear small, they could have a big impact”

Dugher has since lost his Cabinet Office brief – but there clearly is consensus across the three main parties (Nick Clegg carefully sidestepped a CSW question on the topic last month – see p14, CSW October – but has evidently quietly backed reform). So the new system will apply from December; and while the changes appear small, they could have a big impact.

Normington’s main concern is that if an incoming government sees incumbent perm secs as closely tied to their defeated rivals, they’ll want to replace them with ‘clean skins’ – fostering churn among top officials. We saw a changing of the guard following the 2010 election; but after a 13-year Labour government, that’s hardly surprising. If every new administration requires a new set of perm secs, our civil service will become less permanent – weakening the institutional memory, steady management, and continuity in delivery so important to effective government. There’s also a threat to civil servants’ duties to remain impartial and to speak truth to power. Ministers may say they welcome honest challenge, but in reality too many prefer yes-men – and officials may fear that raising objections to daft ideas could end up damaging their career prospects.

These concerns may be unfounded: certainly, CSW’s monthly columnists – Institute for Government director Peter Riddell, and FDA general secretary Dave Penman – have given the reforms their provisional support. But the way this decision has been made speaks volumes about how we’re governed: the public debate has barely strayed beyond a narrow set of ministers, party leaders, ministerial appointees and think-tanks, with the issue resolved once one side has achieved a critical mass. There must be questions over a system that allows constitutional change without involving the wider community – or even most parliamentarians.

Just as interesting as the way the decision was made is the way the argument was conducted. Having established a ‘Ministerial Contestable Policy Fund’ enabling ministers to commission research outside the civil service, Maude immediately employed a think-tank to consider perm sec accountability; its recommendations then formed the basis of his case for change. The idea has since been ‘mainstreamed’, with departments expected to begin regularly buying in policy research.

It would, of course, have been difficult for any civil service policy team to consider these issues objectively; but allowing ministers to select an external research provider brings its own dangers. As Lord O’Donnell emphasised recently, the nature of the available evidence powerfully shapes debates and decision-making: if ministers can decide what evidence is available, the temptation will be for them to commission advice from organisations likely to provide the ‘right’ answer.

If the UK had a written constitution, its provisions wouldn’t cover most aspects of civil service reform: matters such as skills, pay levels and business processes belong to the government of the day. But it certainly would set out the relationships between ministers and civil servants, and the powers and responsibilities of each group. And any proposed change to such a constitution would demand a discussion far bigger than even Jenkins’ proposed inquiry: there would be widespread public debate; close media scrutiny; parliamentary votes; perhaps even a referendum.

There are, of course, big advantages to our unwritten constitution, which can evolve incrementally with the challenges facing government. There are also disadvantages; not least that if the party leaders are agreed, substantive reforms can occur without detailed, broad-based consideration of their potential impact under future governments. That latter point might, to the party leaders, look like another advantage; but to observers in parliament, public service and the wider community, it most certainly is not.

Matt Ross is the editor of Civil Service World


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