Attempts to reform Whitehall are reminiscent of trench warfare on the Western Front. With ministers and mandarins dug in, advances tend to be slow and attritional, and more often than not the result is dreary stalemate.
Nowhere is the grind of reform more palpable than on the matter of permanent secretary appointments. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, wants ministers to be given the final say, choosing from a list of ‘above the line’ candidates selected by the Civil Service Commission. Sir David Normington, the first civil service commissioner, thinks this risks diminishing the merit principle and opening the door to politicisation.
A compromise position was agreed where the secretary of state is more explicitly involved in the appointment process, but where the Civil Service Commission retains the exclusive power to make a recommendation to the prime minister – who can either accept the name offered or start the process afresh.
Having trialled this model for a year or so, the Civil Service Commission – anticipating a push for further reform from the government – has just published a consultation paper in which it considers two reform options. The first is the compromise model outlined above. The second goes further by giving the prime minister – and not the secretary of state – a choice of candidate when a panel ‘assess two or more candidates to be of equivalent merit’. I should declare an interest: IPPR was commissioned by Francis Maude to review, among other things, the appointment arrangements in a number of leading democracies, including a range of ‘Westminster-based systems’. Examining these countries, we argued that the best way of reconciling the merit principle with a stronger role for politicians in permanent secretary appointments is to allow the prime minister to choose from a list of appointable candidates put forward by the Civil Service Commission.
So in one important respect we support the new option Sir David Normington has put on the table. We believe that the most important personnel decisions, upon which the successful delivery of the government’s programme depends, should be made by the prime minister, and not the secretary of state. Prime ministers come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual ministers and departments, and are well placed to think about what will make for the most effective permanent secretary-ministerial partnership. And given the relatively high level of ministerial turn-over in the UK, reshuffled ministers are more likely to have confidence in their permanent secretary if they are appointed by the prime minister and not his or her predecessor. Of course, the prime minister will want to consult the relevant secretary of state, but the decision should be theirs.
But the weakness of the Civil Service Commission proposal is that it stops short of offering the prime minister a choice of ‘above-the-line’ candidates. It seems perverse to accept the principle that he should be given a choice, only to then narrow down the opportunities for exercising it. More troubling is the rationale Sir David has given for rejecting an above the line choice. Speaking to the Financial Times, he said the merit principle would be threatened should the prime minister be asked to choose between an “A* candidate and a just-about-satisfactory candidate.” This is troubling precisely because the first civil service commissioner seems to be suggesting the threshold for the appointment of a permanent secretary can be set low enough to accept a “just-about-satisfactory” candidate. If anything threatens the merit principle, it is this.
Organisations like IPPR and the Institute for Government, which support the idea of an above-the-line choice, are clear that only the most able and competent should ever be considered appointable. Just-about-satisfactory, by definition, falls below the line.
What is clear from looking at the experience of other countries – including major Westminister systems such as Canada, Australia and Singapore – is that it is possible to strengthen the role of politicians in the appointment process without politicisation, as long as clear safeguards are in place. Singapore is something of an exemplar: there, the prime minister appoints permanent secretaries by choosing from a list of names produced by the independent Public Service Commission. There is no evidence that allowing the prime minister to choose from a list erodes the merit principle; on the contrary, Singapore has a reputation for having one of the most non-partisan civil services in the world.
It is to be welcomed that the Civil Service Commission has accepted the case for prime ministerial choice. It now needs to ensure that choice is meaningful.
Editorial: Resist the politicians' power grab
Civil Service Commission offers compromise on perm sec appointments