Maude: ‘Permanent secretaries must challenge ministers more’

Permanent secretaries should challenge ministers more, including by requesting more formal ‘ministerial directions’, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has told Civil Service World. Meanwhile, Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge has called for a debate over civil servants’ accountability, suggesting to CSW that more civil servants should be held accountable to Parliament, rather than solely to their ministers.

By Joshua.Chambers

28 Mar 2012

Speaking to CSW about civil servants’ responsibility to challenge weak policy ideas, Maude said: “I have no problem at all with permanent secretaries and officials pushing back – particularly pushing back with challenges to policies on the basis of whether they’re capable of being implemented.”

Maude went on to encourage the use of ministerial directions: formal instructions by which ministers take responsibility for controversial decisions. “There will be plenty of times when civil servants may take a perfectly proper view that something doesn’t represent the best value,” he said, suggesting that on such occasions permanent secretaries could ask for a formal ministerial direction: “I was very surprised, through the last government, on how few occasions permanent secretaries asked ministers to give them written directions to do things. This is seen as a massively nuclear option, and I don’t think it should be seen as that.”

Meanwhile, Hodge gave a speech earlier this month calling for a debate over civil service accountability, arguing that “if it does not change, more taxpayers’ money will be wasted, public services will continue all too often to provide poor value, and transparency and accountability will become a charade.”

Speaking in an interview with CSW, Hodge said that “a civil servant who’s been responsible for the execution of a policy should be accountable.” She suggested that projects’ Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) as well as accounting officers should be accountable to Parliament, and complained that currently it’s difficult to get them to appear in front of the committee.

Click here for a feature analysing the last 20 years of ministerial directions

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