'Highly opaque' SCS recruitment needs urgent reform, report says

Limited oversight of internal appointments a "powerful incentive" not to advertise jobs externally, Policy Exchange say
Photo: Flazingo Photos/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By CSW staff

08 Nov 2021

Permanent secretaries should lose their ability to fill senior civil service roles without advertising them externally as part of "urgent reforms" to ensure recruitment is open and fair, a think tank has said.

Although all senior jobs are meant to be advertised externally, permanent secretaries can choose to deviate from this themselves, or to delegate such decisions. But a report today, Open, meritocratic and transparent Policy Exchange argues that ministerial approval should be required for internal-only competitions.

Unlike externally-hired staff, internal appointments cannot be investigated by the Civil Service Commission. “Arguably, this creates a powerful incentive for existing civil servants to find reasons not to advertise senior civil service vacancies to external applicants, especially for positions that are highly prestigious,” the report says.

In a foreword, former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson says that external appointments enhanced his department’s effectiveness: “Ventilating the department to greater competition encouraged everyone to raise their performance, discouraging complacency and incentivising Treasury lifers such as myself to raise our game.”

Lord Macpherson notes that – unlike the Treasury – the Home Office and Foreign Office resisted open competition for decades after it was recommended by the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report commissioned by prime minister William Gladstone. “Self regulation has failed,” he writes. “As Gladstone might have asked, and the current prime minister would understand, ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’?” using Latin for ‘who will guard the guards’.

The Policy Exchange report also recommends mandatory reporting of exemptions to external advertising and an international benchmarking exercise on the recruitment process, both to provide better data. What information is available “suggests that the UK civil service currently finds itself in the worst of both worlds, having a relatively unregulated and insular appointments system coupled with some of the slowest recruitment timescales in the OECD,” it says.

It argues that the government should change 2010’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Act to cover internal as well as external recruitment, as is the case in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, and that the Civil Service Commission should have the power to investigate and annul internal appointments.

It describes the commission as “heavily under-resourced” at present, with a part-time first commissioner and a secretariat of less than 20 full-time equivalent staff, one for every 23,000 civil servants, and says its independence should be strengthened by appointing its own staff rather than seconding civil servants and considering a first commissioner who is not a former civil servant.

The report says that the arguments over financier Lex Greensill’s appointment illustrate the need for change. It follows Nigel Boardman’s review of the appointment and recommendations made last month by the Institute of Government think tank, including for a new cross-government compliance function.

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay said he would look at the report "carefully", calling it a "thoughtful and important contribution to the ongoing debate about civil service reform".

In a statement endorsing the document, he said: "We must ensure that all civil service appointments are on merit and ensure that we attract the best outside talent into the senior civil service. We must open up the highest echelons of public service if we are to meet the challenges of the modern world, and deliver the public services people rightly expect."

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