Idiosyncratic and overburdened: how perm secs and ministers work together

An in-depth review of the effectiveness of the civil service has focused in on the relationship between officials and political leaders as the key fault line. If it can be improved, so can policy delivery, Andrew Kakabadse tells Richard Johnstone

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

10 Apr 2018

The author of an in-depth review of civil service effectiveness has told Civil Service World that too much pressure is put on the relationship between the secretary of state and a permanent secretary and that reforms in Whitehall to relieve this tension could lead to more effective policy implementation.

Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, was asked by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to review the effectiveness of the civil service as part of its ongoing inquiry.

The rare external review of Whitehall, undertaken with the permission of Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary, and John Manzoni, civil service chief executive, focused in on the vital importance of the relationship between a department’s political and civil service chiefs.


The management and governance expert found, to his surprise, that the bond between these key decision-makers was pivotal to the functioning of departments”.

“The relationship between the secretary and state and the permanent secretary, which is a very idiosyncratic relationship, is in a sense overloaded, because other bits aren’t working well. There is an over-reliance on the secretary of state-perm secretary relationship working well. I never expected that outcome but that is what emerged,” he said.

This overloading was a response to other departmental processes that are meant to help the secretary of state make decisions not working effectively, said Kakabadse.

In particular, Kakabadse highlighted the role of the political special advisor in a department, and the work of departmental boards, which are supposed to relieve the pressure of the secretary of state-perm sec relationship. But these were not working well.

“A lot depends on the pressure that the secretary of state can bring, and the permanent secretary’s view of what it really takes to deliver policy across a series of misaligned interests,” he said.

“There is a lot that needs to be taken into account in making policy work, [but] there were two roles in particular that were really in tension – the political advisor and the departmental boards.”

Kakabadse said both roles are crucial when working well – the political advisor to act as the bridge between the secretary of state and the perm sec, and the departmental board to provide independent oversight and governance.

“The really good political advisors try to understand why they [the secretary of state and the perm sec] were coming to a slightly different conclusion on how policy should be delivered, and then act as the go-between to pull the two sides together,” he said. “That was not a luxury, that was a necessity, but the way political advisors had been used was almost like the secretary of state’s dog – they were a Doberman, they were just going and biting civil servants and making things ten times worse. I hadn’t expected to find that.

“The other thing I didn’t expect was that the departments boards actually have a far more important role to play than they have been playing up to now.”

Kakabadse said he was critical of departmental boards going into the review, but while that criticism still stands in some respects, some boards turned out to be exemplars in supporting the departments and perm secs.

“But they were doing that under their own initiative because the [formal] chairmanship of the board, which was the secretary of state, was woefully inadequate and, at times, bloody awful,” he said. “So we were not getting the benefit of the board that we needed.”

The pressure that this puts on the perm sec was laid bare in the report, where current departmental chiefs anonymously revealed their anxieties.

“The default is that we’re to blame for everything,” said one. “We’re to blame for Brexit being difficult; if we say Brexit’s difficult, we’re blamed for being remoaners.” Another told the review: “It is the permanent secretary who has to act as the shock absorber.”

“The way political advisors had been used was almost like the secretary of state’s dog – they were just biting civil servants and making things ten times worse”

Kakabadse acknowledged that one of the criticisms of his investigation is that there is too much psychology in the analysis of the secretary of state-perm sec relationship, but he says this was the result of the over-reliance on that relationship working well.

“One of the reasons why there is too much psychology in the result is because the policy delivery process is quite idiosyncratic, it is not as rational as the public administration literature would have you believe,” he added.

Modern departments have four key relationships, Kakabadse concluded – the secretary of state, the perm sec, the facilitating role from the political advisor, and independent governance oversight from the departmental board.

The key ingredient to unlocking improvements would be to boost the role of departmental boards, including introducing an independent chair.

“That is what is currently missing,” he said. “The reason there is so much psychology in policy delivery between perm secs and secretaries of state is: number one, that that’s [always going to be] the reality, but number two there is an over-compensation, particularly by perm secs, to make that relationship work when the oversight and governance processes that could be provided by the departmental boards are inadequate. Because of that we have too much psychology.”

A tense relationship in the department’s leadership positions “infects”, in Kakabadse’s words, the whole of a department. “It infects the whole of the ministerial team, it infects the relationship of the secretary of state with their political advisor, it inflects the way board members see their role and see their contribution,” he said.

Improving both the effectiveness of political advisors and departmental boards is key to unlocking a more productive central relationship – and more effective policymaking.

“If you take policy from its very inception – me and you as members of the electorate receiving messages from politicians right through to something being delivered, that parliamentary process is only 20% of the problem. 80% of the problem is when it has left parliament and gone to departments. We need to spend more time on what it means to deliver policy, and what it means for the secretary of state to be responsible for that process,” he said.

The review started off by asking the question, Is the civil service fit for purpose? But Kakabadse said the question it answered was wider.

“It didn’t take more than a few weeks to realise that was the wrong question. The real question is: Is government fit for purpose?”, he said.

“The reason for that is that the civil service turned out to be pretty good. To improve things, if we could get a better input from the secretaries of state to take the pressure off their permanent secretary, we would probably get a more professional form of government.”

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