MPs launch fresh inquiry into civil service skills and effectiveness

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee asks whether civil service in its current form is "appropriate for the twenty-first century" – and whether Whitehall's pay policy for officials is up to scratch

By Matt Foster

20 Apr 2016

MPs have launched a wide-ranging inquiry into the effectiveness of the civil service, after warning that previous reform efforts had not taken into account lessons "from past failed attempts".

The Civil Service Reform Plan was published during the last parliament, promising to make the civil service "more skilled, less bureaucratic and more unified".

But a report by the Public Administration Select Committee said the plan did not "look strategically" at the challenges facing the civil service, and called for a parliamentary commission to be set up to consider the "purpose, structure, skills and culture" of the civil service, as well as the changing relationship between ministers and their officials.

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The call for a parliamentary commission was ultimately rejected by the government, and the committee – renamed the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC) – has now launched a fresh inquiry into the future of Whitehall.

Announcing the new inquiry, the committee said it would seek to look at four key areas: the structure and organisation of the civil service "and how appropriate this is for the twenty-first century"; the effectiveness of policy delivery and the civil service's ability to "learn from success and failure"; the skills and capabilities of officials; and any risks to the impartiality of civil servants.

That will include consideration of whether the civil service is "resistant" to change, PACAC said, and whether the organisation has a "coherent identity" amid the rise of arm's-length bodies, government companies, and outsourced public services.

The inquiry will also delve into the thorny issue of pay for civil servants, whose annual rises have been capped at 1% since 2012, a move which has prompted warnings from unions and some senior officials about the organisation's ability to recruit and retain specialist staff. 

PACAC asks whether the current pay structure is "attracting and retaining the right people" – and the committee of MPs also promises to ask questions about the leadership of the civil service, asking how the organisation's highest tier, the Senior Civil Service (SCS), can be made "into a more effective leadership group".

There will also be wider constitutional questions covered by the committee, with the inquiry set to probe whether the 1918 Haldane doctrine, which stipulates that ministers accountable to parliament for the conduct of their departments, is "still adequate" almost 100 years on.

The MPs ask: "Should more civil servants be held directly accountable to Parliament? How can permanent secretaries as accounting officers look after the taxpayer’s interests as well as the immediate needs of the minister?"

Before kicking of its inquiry, committee has asked for written submissions, with a deadline of June 8 for interested parties to submit their views via its parliamentary website.

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