Kerswell: civil servants have a ‘duty’ to challenge poor ideas

It is the duty of civil servants to challenge weak policy ideas, the director general of civil service reform, Katherine Kerswell, has told Civil Service World – even if officials risk being seen as “obstructive”.

By Joshua.Chambers

30 Jan 2013

Kerswell called for civil servants to give robust policy advice; asked whether that sometimes means challenging ministers, she replied: “Yes. The duty of every civil servant is to do that, even if you think: ‘Oh God, they really don’t want to hear this,’ that’s what you’ve got to do. That’s your job. And sometimes, that can be felt as: ‘You’re just being obstructive; you’re just getting in the way.’ You’re actually doing your job.”

She added that officials should express their views sensitively: “Sometimes civil servants don’t say it in the best ways,” she said. “Everybody’s a human being here.” But the duty to test policy ideas creates “a necessary and healthy tension that makes the system work.”

Kerswell’s comments come after a series of politicians and advisers have attacked the civil service as obstructive and bureaucratic. Former police minister Nick Herbert and special adviser Steve Hilton were the most vocal, but others including former PM Tony Blair have also provided critical comments.

Some critics of the civil service argue that top officials should be made more directly accountable to ministers, and the government last year commissioned the IPPR think tank to review civil service accountability. However, Kerswell revealed that while the deadline for the IPPR’s study was the end of last year, the work has not yet been submitted to the Cabinet Office.

The IPPR appears to have been given an extension; it has meanwhile met with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude “a couple of times”, a Whitehall source told CSW.

Researchers were asked to look in particular at the New Zealand model of accountability, under which objectives agreed between ministers and officials are incorporated into civil service employment contracts.

However, CSW understands that while the researchers initially favoured the New Zealand model, they have now identified weaknesses in that system. The Whitehall source indicated that Maude is now particularly interested in the Australian model, under which ministers have large private offices manned by their own appointees.

In Australia, civil servants are able to temporarily step outside the management of the civil service and work directly for a minister, returning to the civil service at the end of their private office tenure.

The Whitehall source explained that Maude currently favours the idea of UK private office staff reporting directly to their minister, adding that such staff would not be expected to do party political work. This mechanism would allow the government to retain an impartial, permanent civil service – albeit by temporarily redesignating some officials as non-civil servants.

Meanwhile, Maude is reported to believe that the system for appointing permanent secretaries has improved, following minor reforms introduced last year by the Civil Service Commission to allow greater ministerial involvement. The new system was used to appoint new permanent secretaries at the Home Office and energy department (Read all appointments and moves). However, Maude is still considering further reforms.

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