Poll: 75% of former Cabinet ministers want inquiry into civil service

Three-quarters of former secretaries of state surveyed by Civil Service World support the calls for a commission to consider how the civil service should develop and reform.

By Suzannah.Brecknell

02 Dec 2013

Asked whether they support “the creation of a high-level panel to consider the skills and capabilities of the civil service”, 75% of the former secretaries of state replied ‘yes’, with consensus across the party divide: 73% of Tories support the proposals, and 75% of Labour.

CSW polled all 99 of the surviving former secretaries of state, following the calls by government’s lead non-executive director Lord Browne and the Public Administration Select Committee for a commission of inquiry to consider the future of the civil service. Some 28 of the former ministers responded.

In comments submitted with the survey, several respondents said they would support such a commission providing it had the right balance of expertise. One former Conservative minister said setting up a panel is “a good idea, which hinges on who sits on it.” Its members, he continued, “need to be experienced and understanding of the current civil service, but also well aware of other systems which work better.”

Respondents also gave their views on the possible remit for the panel: several agreed that the panel must consider how to improve the performance of the civil service overall, with former Labour minister Ian McCartney suggesting it must focus on “improving delivery; the knowledge and skills of the civil service; and how we attract people into the civil service.”

Some former ministers, however, support a panel to ensure that civil service reforms don’t undermine its impartiality. One former Conservative minister said: “If the [panel’s] task was to consider how the professionalism and independence of the civil service can be enhanced and maintained, I would support that.”

The survey also asked former ministers for their views on Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s plans to allow ministers to personally appoint civil servants and external advisers to form ‘Extended Ministerial Offices’ (EMOs): the majority (57%) of all respondents support the plans, although a narrow majority of Tory resopondents oppose it.

The Civil Service Commission (CCS) last month published the rules governing ministers’ appointments within EMOs. Individuals appointed under these rules will be on a non-renewable, fixed-term contract of up to five years, and must be managed by another civil servant. The Civil Service Commission must approve senior appointments and the appointment of individuals who have worked for the minister or the minister’s political party within the last five years.

The Cabinet Office has not yet published its own guidance on EMOs, but a spokesperson said this is expected to be published shortly.

The FDA union for senior civil servants expressed concerns about EMO plans when they were first announced, but its general secretary Dave Penman says the new guidance has “resolved quite a number of those concerns.” He believes the CCS’s rules strike a good “balance between the demands of ministers for greater support and the necessity to have that political objectivity that’s at the core of the civil service”.

For the full survey results, see our special report

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