Opinion: Ministers mustn't have the right to choose between candidates

Last week the Civil Service Commission published its response to two proposals in the Civil Service Reform Plan for greater ministerial involvement in senior civil service appointments. The most discussed proposal would give ministers the right to choose their permanent secretaries from a number of candidates judged suitable by a selection panel. In our response, the commission actively supports the involvement of ministers in permanent secretary competitions and has agreed some further changes to strengthen that involvement. But we stop short of giving ministers a choice. That would, we believe, be a step too far.

By Civil Service World

19 Dec 2012

The Civil Service Commission was set up for a single purpose: to ensure that selection for appointment to the civil service is “on merit on the basis of fair and open competition”. This is not, as some suggest, an outdated principle. Although it has been the foundation of the British civil service for over 150 years, it was reaffirmed and refreshed by Parliament as recently as 2010 in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act with all party support. Getting the best person for the job through a fair, open and competitive process is a principle for all times. It provides the best chance of recruiting talented people at every level. It is also a safeguard against personal and political patronage and so helps to protect the impartiality of the civil service.

The commission publishes ‘recruitment principles’, effectively our code of practice, to provide guidance on what merit, fairness and openness in selection actually means. These principles apply to all recruitment from outside, whether as an administrative officer, or to the fast stream, or to the senior civil service. As more senior jobs have been opened up to external competition, we have developed detailed guidance for senior level competitions and updated that guidance regularly. Twenty years ago it would have been rare to select a permanent secretary through open competition; today it is the norm. All the more important, then, that the principle of selection on merit to an impartial civil service is safeguarded at this top level, like every other.

In our new guidance on permanent secretary appointments, published last week, we have worked hard to respond positively to the government’s proposal.  We are clear that ministers must be fully involved throughout a competition. It is absolutely essential that a secretary of state and a permanent secretary can work well together. So the secretary of state should be consulted at the outset on what skills and experiences are needed. He or she should agree the job description, the advertisement, and the composition of the independent panel which oversees the process. They should meet the shortlisted candidates and feed back to the panel on areas to be probed at final interview. At the end there can be further consultation with the secretary of state and even, in exceptional circumstances, a meeting between the secretary of state, the head of the civil service and the leading candidates. Some, I think, will be surprised at how much involvement is encouraged.

However, it is the independent selection panel, chaired by a civil service commissioner, which is responsible for the integrity of the whole process. It decides who should be selected at each stage and makes the final decision on which candidate should be recommended for appointment. The prime minister has the legal right not to appoint the recommended candidate, but neither he nor the secretary of state may choose someone else. If the recommended candidate is not accepted, then the selection process must start again.

This is deliberately a system of checks and balances. It enables very significant ministerial involvement, while safeguarding appointments on merit to an impartial civil service; one which can serve not only the government of the day but also future governments of a different political colour.

The commission has no evidence that this system is broken. We believe it can operate within a different framework of accountability and be used to recruit the best talent in the future, as it has in the past. Indeed, using our new guidance, we are keen to work with the government to recruit permanent secretaries with different mixes of skills and from a wider range of backgrounds. However, that will always, in our view, be done best through fair and open competitions with an expert panel, not a single individual, making the final decision on merit.

Sir David Normington is the first civil service commissioner.


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