A PASC report published last week says the decision to split the roles of cabinet secretary, head of the civil service (HCS), and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office could “disperse power at a critical time”.
The report raises concerns over the decision to split the cabinet secretary and HCS roles, but its main criticisms focus on the fact that HCS Sir Bob Kerslake will hold the job part-time alongside his responsibilities as communities department permanent secretary. Although the HCS role has been part-time since the 1980s, the report says, the challenges facing the civil service are “of such magnitude that it is necessary to consider whether what has served in the past is suitable”.
PASC chair Bernard Jenkin told CSW: “If this isn’t working, the government’s change programme will grind to a halt.”
The report also argues that the new arrangements will only succeed if ministers treat the HCS and cabinet secretary as having equal power and status. “The head of the civil service needs to be able to speak truth to power about his responsibilities, the departments he’s responsible for, the implementation of government policy,” said Jenkin. “That cannot be filtered by a cabinet secretary who no longer has direct responsibility for those things.”
Jenkin added that “it will become very evident, very quickly, whether this is an equal and stable relationship” between the HCS and the cabinet secretary. “If it’s not working, it must be changed quickly.”
If the HCS must hold parallel departmental responsibilities, the report says, it would be better if the second job was permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office – ensuring that a single individual oversaw the civil service reform agenda.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that the “nature of coalition government and the challenges facing the civil service mean that both roles are significantly larger than in the past,” and argued that retaining a delivery departmental role for the HCS “ensures you are close to civil servants on the front line.”
Read the full interview with Bob Kerslake and Jeremy Heywood