O’Donnell highlights perm secs' dual role

Lord O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, has dismissed as “silly” suggestions that permanent secretaries should only serve the “priorities of the government of the day”, rather than balancing them against the long-term aims of their department.


By Colin Marrs

11 Jul 2014

Giving a parliamentary speech about public and private sector cultures at Portcullis House yesterday, he said that while the civil service should “of course” implement ministers’ wishes, it also needs to ensure it has the capacity to work with different administrations.

Earlier this week, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude wrote a letter to Cabinet colleagues arguing that permanent secretaries' sole responsibility is to deliver their ministers' wishes. In an apparent response to Maude's letter - which was leaked to the BBC's Newsnight - O’Donnell said: “We have seen some rather silly comments recently that permanent secretaries should only deliver their thinking about implementing the priorities of the minister of the day.

“Of course they should do that – that is their primary concern: to implement the wishes of the democratically-elected politicians. But actually they do need to preserve the capacity of the department. If, for example, a secretary of state for work and pensions came in and said: ‘Right, let’s abolish all capacity for modern pensions,' you would not expect the permanent secretary to say ‘Yes minister’. You would expect them to come out and challenge that. I don’t actually think that is a dispute between ministers and civil servants.”

He added that it would be possible to move to a non-permanent civil service model, similar to the one in the USA, where senior officials change with political administrations, saying: “I wouldn’t favour that, but it is certainly feasible. But as long as we have a permanent civil service it is vital to maintain impartiality and that civil servants retain the trust of all parties.”

His speech follows Maude’s discovery of a 2009 government guide to recruiting permanent secretaries, which sets out their desired characteristics. The document says that a permanent secretary must “balance ministers' or high-level stakeholders' immediate needs or priorities with the long-term aims of their department, being shrewd about what needs to be sacrificed, at what costs and what the implications might be.”

It explains that permanent secretaries "act as a 'pivot point' in terms of knowing when to 'serve' the political agenda and manage ministers' expectations, versus leading their department with a strong sense of mission."

In his letter to Cabinet colleagues, Maude wrote: "As currently framed [the document] plainly does not conform with constitutional propriety.

"The civil service aims not to serve the 'long-term aims of the department' but the priorities of the government of the day."

O’Donnell’s comments echo the views of Lord Butler, who was head of the civil service from 1988 until 1998 under Margaret Thatcher. Butler said earlier this week: "There is nothing in [the document] that I wouldn't have put down in black and white... Some of it could have been a bit more straightforwardly expressed but... I think it does reflect the borders that permanent secretaries can't cross.

"Ministers have a political agenda which civil servants can't get into. Although you're working very closely together, you've got to keep a bit of difference between yourselves.”

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