MPs have paved the way for former Cabinet Office chief Ian Watmore to become the new First Civil Service Commissioner, saying they have been impressed by his "independence of mind".
Watmore, former permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office and one-time head of the civil service Efficiency and Reform Group, appeared before MPs for a pre-scrutiny hearing this week, after being named as the government's choice to lead the watchdog set up to ensure that top civil service appointments are made on merit.
The First Civil Service Commissioner personally chairs recruitment panels for permanent secretary posts, and is also tasked with upholding the civil service values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality.
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Issuing its verdict on Watmore on Thursday, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) said Watmore had "a long and distinguished career in business, the civil service and public life" and had given "examples of when he had demonstrated his independence of mind".
"PACAC confirms Mr Watmore’s appointment as First Civil Service Commissioner," the committee's latest report said.
It added: "PACAC is undertaking inquiries into the civil service and its governance and we will, through this work, scrutinise the work of the Commissioner and how he and the government uphold the values of the civil service, to ensure it is fit for purpose.
"In particular, the future capability of the civil service depends upon the leadership capability of the senior civil service and we are pleased that Mr Watmore looks forward to working with PACAC on this and all other matters relating to the civil service. PACAC will also continue to support and scrutinise the Civil Service Commission and its independence."
As well as leading the Cabinet Office and the then-Department for Universities, Innovation and Skills as perm sec in the 2000s, Watmore – whose son Duncan plays professional football for Premier League side Sunderland – has experience of life outside of Whitehall, including a short-lived stint as chief executive of the Football Association and four years as managing director of consultancy Accenture (then Andersen's).
He has also served in a number of non-executive roles, including as a Church Commissioner, and as a non-exec at the Office of the Information Commissioner.
During PACAC's scrutiny hearing, Watmore – who was recruited for the job through an open competition which saw 17 candidates put their names forward – described his years at the FA as his "midlife crisis", but defended a CV which includes a string of relatively short-term postings.
"I have only ever been employed by three organisations in my life: one, Accenture, two, the civil service and, three, the Football Association – for 24 years, seven years and one year."
Asked about his priorities for the First Civil Service Commissioner gig, which has a fixed term of five years, Watmore said: "If I could say at the end of five years greater diversity, greater skill base, we collectively did the job on Brexit and we have preserved Northcote-Trevelyan, I think that would be a good legacy."
He also told the group of MPs that he believed officials were too often "hung out to dry" when a policy had gone off track and argued for leaders to allow their staff "space to fail".
"You have 100 projects and one goes wrong and 99 go right – and people don't mention the 99, they zoom in on one," he said. "And so in the end people become risk-averse, they try to do failure avoidance rather than innovation."