Lord Butler criticises churn among perm secs

Permanent secretaries’ tenure is too short and the high turnover is sometimes to blame when “things go wrong”, according to former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, who also warned that civil servants “aren’t encouraged to speak truth to power”.

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By Winnie.Agbonlahor

02 Dec 2013

Speaking on Radio Four’s Week in Westminster programme last week, Butler (pictured above) said perm secs and accounting officers “get changed quite frequently; you might say too frequently”.

He cited West Coast Mainline as a "fiasco ... the civil service was responsible for”, and said that the average tenure for a permanent secretary in the Department for Transport since 2002 is two years. “I have no doubt that the high turnover both of ministers and of senior officials is a problem,” he added.

Butler also expressed his disapproval of ministerial briefings to the press against civil servants – citing recent briefings against Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service - and described them as a “sign that something’s very seriously wrong”. He said in a situation where civil servants fear that they’ll be “dumped upon when things go wrong”, they “aren’t encouraged to speak truth to power”.

He added that Francis Maude, minister of the Cabinet Office, who called on civil servants to speak truth to power, does “not understand leadership”.

Butler appeared on the radio show along with Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, who claimed that leaders of the permanent civil “never accept responsibility for the things that go wrong”.

Accountability among permanent secretaries could be increased, Herbert argued, by giving ministers the right to hire and fire perm secs or by allowing ministers to have extended private offices, as proposed by the current government.

However, Butler, who served under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair and was head of the home civil service for ten years from 1988, argued that ministers already help select perm secs and that civil servants are held personally accountable by the Public Accounts Committee.

He also said he backs the idea of extended ministerial offices, but warned that they “mustn’t be an excuse for giving political cronies jobs at public expense” or serve as a “cocoon that protects the minister and pours poison into the ears of the minister about the civil service”. (read our Special Report for a full analysis on the proposals for extended ministerial offices and more of Butler’s views)

A spokesman for Maude said: "The Civil Service has brilliant people but somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts, because of a hierarchical system and a rigid culture. It's not right to patronise and infantilise people by pretending that everything is perfect in the best of all possible worlds.

"Good leadership is not about sweeping problems under the carpet. Francis and the leadership of the Civil Service have highlighted issues which need to be addressed. It is untrue that Francis has briefed against Bob Kerslake – Bob and Francis accepted together responsibility publically for the shortcomings of the civil service reform programme earlier this June.

"What Francis said was that 'everybody has to take responsibility for what they were part of' - that's axiomatic and the alternative is no responsibility and no accountability."


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