The government has decided to lead the world in making public the annual objectives of its permanent secretaries (see feature) – but as transparency initiatives go, this one is adopting a very low profile.
The press release went out on 20 December – more suspicious publications would call this “sneaked out” – and the objectives themselves are available via the Cabinet Office’s ‘Resources’ page. Few departmental sites include the objectives: of the half dozen we looked at, only the environment department has put its chief’s objectives by her biography.
Yet half-hearted publication is the worst of all worlds: given the ease with which data can travel, anything that looks like recalcitrance may simply hasten its spread. Departments should make it easy for the public to examine their permanent secretaries’ objectives. Sometimes, that will be uncomfortable – but in the digital age, a wholehearted embrace of transparency is a far better bet than a fruitless attempt to half-conceal information that has irretrievably entered the public domain.
The Cabinet Office responds:
We were pleased to see Civil Service World describe the publication of objectives for permanent secretaries as a world first innovation. But it is simply not true to say that this was “sneaked out”.
Whitehall was still hard at work over the Christmas holidays and key national journalists - Civil Service World amongst them - were invited by us to a briefing on the new policy. In addition, we co-authored a piece for the Guardian where we set out our rationale for "shining a new spotlight" on the work of the Civil Service.
As the department driving Civil Service Reform, it is logical to publish the objectives on the Cabinet Office website, where they are available together in one place and alongside other cross-government transparency publications. Enter the term “permanent secretaries objectives” in Google Search and at present the page is the first result.
We were sorry that Civil Service World could not make our briefing, but we were delighted at the widespread coverage received elsewhere. Public awareness of our own objectives will drive standards and efficiency, and ultimately, help us build an exceptional civil service delivering the best for Britain.
Francis Maude & Sir Bob Kerslake
Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall
A note from CSW:
CSW was indeed unable to spare any reporters to attend the Cabinet Office briefing – we were all in the office, facing tight deadlines – but had previously reported the impending publication of permanent secretaries’ objectives on several occasions (here, here, here and here). We followed up in the new year with a 2500-word feature on the topic. Our main intention in the Editorial was not to argue that the Cabinet Office has been recalcitrant about publishing these objectives, but to urge other Whitehall departments to embrace publication; sorry if that didn’t come across clearly enough.