Maude: Appoint chief functional officers to tackle 'diluted authority and mandate'

Perm sec-level officials should lead push to streamline and strengthen digital, HR, commercial and other functions, review finds
Photo: Dean Baynham/Alamy Stock Photo

The civil service should appoint a permanent secretary-level civil servant to lead each major government function – which should be streamlined and strengthened, Francis Maude has said.

The functional model has become watered down and fragmented since being introduced under former civil service chief executive Sir John Manzoni, Lord Maude said in his long-anticipated review of civil service governance, published yesterday.

His recommendations echoed many of the findings of his 2021 review of spend controls and government’s functional model, including a call to strengthen the functions’ mandate and leadership.

His governance review drew attention to the “diluted authority and lower status” of functional leaders, suggesting that their absence at the Wednesday Morning Colleagues meeting of permanent secretaries shows the “importance and gravitas of these roles is no longer so widely recognised or respected across Whitehall”.

This shift may be having a significant impact on retention of civil servants in key functions, according to Maude. “A diluted mandate makes it harder to retain the high-quality capability that had been carefully built in the functions. Staff with high aptitude in these implementation functions are in high demand across all sectors of the economy,” the review said.

“If the civil service is unable to provide fulfilling, impactful work for them because they are frustrated by a lack of authority and empowerment, they will take their talents elsewhere.”

To remedy this, Maude said each major function – including commercial, digital, finance and HR – should be “unequivocally led” by a single chief officer, who would be responsible for both central delivery capability and the cross-government function.

Chief functional officers should be appointed at perm-sec level and – in most cases – appointed following an external recruitment search, Maude said. He argued that the interview panel for these posts should include no more than one civil servant, usually the head of the civil service, to ensure “the temptation to hire for “compatibility” – which can often slide into conformity – is avoided”.

“It is in the nature of these roles that they will often need to challenge existing customs and practices; in particular, the chief people officer and the HR function will be central to the effective delivery of reform and the discharge of the stewardship obligation,” he said.

His review also calls for senior officials in each function to be directly employed by the function, rather than the department where they work – as is already the case for the commercial function. “An immediate start should be made with the HR function,” the review said.

Chief functional officers should be held accountable to parliament, appearing at select committee hearings alongside senior responsible officers when MPs are examining programmes that are reliant on cross-government services, Maude said.

“This is intended to ensure that parliament is given the full opportunity to receive assurances that ‘horizontal’ (i.e. across departments) accountability is subject to equal scrutiny as ‘vertical’ accountability (i.e. within departments),” the review said – adding that the “same logic of parliamentary accountability” should apply to senior officials in the Treasury or his proposed Office of Budget and Management when decisions made centrally about spending materially affect the deliverability of a major programme.

Maude’s review also calls for machinery of government changes where functions have been split between multiple organisations. For example, the Government Digital Service and Central Digital and Data Office should be unified; as should the Crown Commercial Service and commercial function, which he said should exist under the Office of Budget and Management.

"In several of the cross-cutting functions, governance and accountability has become fragmented. Where previously each function had a clear and unambiguous leader at the centre who was responsible for driving effectiveness with one voice across Whitehall, the centre is now frequently providing multiple (and mixed) signals," the review explained.

'Restate and strengthen spend controls'

Along with these changes to the functional model, Maude's review reiterated his call to strengthen spend controls, which he said in 2021 were needed to remedy “often poor” value for money in government spending.

The application of real-terms spend controls operated by the Cabinet Office is another example of how the functions' mandate has been diluted, Maude said.

"Thirteen years on from the original implementation of spend controls, many departments have become more accustomed to using common services. However, with the weakening of spend controls operated by informed assurance teams in the functions, too many have reverted to old habits," the review said.

The mandate for spending controls therefore "needs to be restated and strengthened, with a high bar set for any exemptions to agreed spending limits".

"Publication of exemptions, alongside numbers for efficiency savings, should be resumed on the same basis as between 2010 and 2015 and figures for the intervening years should be published."

With these amended recruitment practices in place, Maude said each function should focus on the six responsibilities he set out in his 2020 review of the cross-cutting functions: developing capability; delivering continuous improvement; setting and enforcing standards; providing expert advice; setting and enforcing cross government strategies; and developing and delivering services as needed.

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