Think tank calls for all departments to get a chief exec

Reform plans also target churn and prospect of annual £80bn in savings from better productivity

By Jim Dunton

14 Apr 2023

All government departments should get a chief executive brought in from outside of the civil service as part of a radical shake-up of the way Whitehall currently works, according to a new report from the Effective Governance Forum.

The think tank's proposals, launched this week, seek to install CEOs to work alongside permanent secretaries and ministers, with a clear focus on implementing policy once it has been decided by the secretary of state on the advice of the perm sec.

The non-partisan group’s vision for reforming the civil service also involves introducing a greater degree of separation between government departments, making it harder for staff to take on new roles outside of their current ministry. 

The Effective Governance Forum said staff's knowledge and experience would only be retained if the current “continual movement” of officials between departments was ended.

Report authors Patrick Barbour and Tim Knox said the UK’s system of government did not allow policies to be implemented quickly or effectively. They said a fundamental change in the roles of ministers and perm secs would “transform the quality, choice and cost of public services” and could save £80bn a year to plough back into better public services or cut tax.

Barbour, who was previously executive chairman of Barbour Index and Aptitude Software, is a director of the Effective Governance Forum, alongside Conservative Party peer Lord Gary Porter. Knox is a former director of the Centre for Policy Studies. The forum’s board includes King’s College London professor Anand Menon.

Barbour and Knox said previous attempts at reforming Whitehall had failed to address the “mismatch of roles” in the civil service and the loss of knowledge and experience at department level that resulted from staff churn.

They said that creating the new role would free up ministers and permanent secretaries “from the details of management”, so they could focus on strategic policy and providing objective advice to the secretary of state and the chief executive.

Barbour and Knox said the chief execs, meanwhile, would “bring professional management experience and stability of ethos and vision” to departments. They noted that churn among secretaries of state was also an issue, with average time in post since 2010 standing at just 19 months.

They said departmental CEOs should be professional managers, appointed on the grounds of being the best person for the job and should have a track record of efficiently running large businesses or third-sector organisations.

Candidates should have “wide experience of change management” and come from a culture where “’action this day’ is the norm”, Barbour and Knox said.

“Their role would be to achieve the objectives of the department, as agreed with the minister,” the authors added.

“They would have the final say on how policy was implemented, not on what the actual policy should be.”

Barbour and Knox said CEOs should come from outside the civil service, initially, as most senior civil servants are “too imbued” with existing civil service culture. The authors said salary levels should be set high enough to ensure the “right calibre of person” could be hired.

They suggested the new management structure should be trialled in two or three departments and refined before being rolled out across government.

Barbour and Knox said chief execs could only be held accountable for achieving their department’s objectives if they also controlled the way those objectives were achieved and their staff – including hiring and dismissing, pay, terms and conditions.

They said increasing the extent to which departments operated as separate entities would provide staff with clear responsibilities and plans, and the opportunity to control their own work, to build knowledge and experience, and to see projects through to completion in a stable environment.

“The knowledge and experience of staff will only be retained if the current rate of movement between departments is reversed, and staff know they are expected to remain with projects until they are completed. Governments recognise this as a major issue,” they said.

Barbour and Knox said their £80bn annual efficiencies figure was based on the assumption that central government should be able to achieve an increase in productivity of “at least” 20%.

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