Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

The government is likely to implement a further set of civil service reforms soon, the head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake has told CSW, as it pursues “unfinished business” that didn’t make it into last year’s Civil Service Reform Plan (CSRP).

By Matt.Ross

13 Jun 2013

“We’ve always said the reform plan isn’t the last word on reform,” he said. “There will inevitably be other things we want to work on, and when we come to one year on [from the CSRP’s publication last June], there will and should be other ideas.”

These, said Kerslake, are likely to include moving to fixed-term contracts for permanent secretaries – a change announced last Tuesday by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who pointed out that former PM Tony Blair attempted to introduce fixed terms nearly 10 years ago. This, Maude said, would “mean establishing a new norm that all senior civil service jobs would be four-year placements, with no presumption of permanence in post.”

Speaking to CSW on Friday, Kerslake said: “Personally, I think there’s a case” for fixed terms. It is “wholly understandable that it would be part of the thinking for the next stage,” he said, adding: “How long that tenure is, is open to question.”

Kerslake also said the government will be “following up” on lead non-executive director Lord Browne’s proposed reforms to project management: these involve giving the Major Projects Authority greater powers to scrutinise and halt projects, enforce compliance with its ‘starting gate’ process, withhold funding, and nominate or veto candidates for key project management posts. And Sir Bob noted that there’s “further work to do on appearances of civil servants in front of parliamentary sessions”: the Cabinet Office is currently reviewing the rules governing departments’ interaction with select committees, with the aim of tightening accountability to Parliament.

Asked why elements of the CSRP are running late, Kerslake said that the government’s ambitious policy and organisational reforms have taken up a lot of time, and noted that “we have quite a federal way of doing things in the civil service, and that can make the task of reform harder to deliver – especially if it’s something that relies on collaboration and cooperation across Whitehall.” As reforms create a stronger corporate centre, he added, “implementation will be faster and more consistent”.

Meanwhile, both Maude and Kerslake have expressed scepticism on the idea – championed by Public Administration Select Committee chair Bernard Jenkin, and recently backed by Lord Browne and FDA chief Dave Penman (see Opinion) – of establishing a commission on the civil service. On Tuesday, Maude set out his preference for “incremental changes”, arguing against a tactic of “uprooting it all” and saying: “Let’s work with what we’ve got.”

On Friday, Kerslake told CSW that a commission “could be a gigantic distraction from things we know we need to do now.” People would question whether to continue with reforms “if there’s going to be a commission that might change it”, he said. “It raises a question about the direction of travel you’re going in, and I think we have a sufficiently big and clear agenda that we should focus on”.

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