Truth to power: how Civil Service reform can succeed - Public Administration Committee Contents

3  The Civil Service Reform Plan and prospects for further reform

29. In our September 2011 Report, Change in Government: The Agenda for Leadership, we concluded that "the Government has embarked on a course of reform which has fundamental implications for the future of the Civil Service" and that "the challenges facing Whitehall will require a Civil Service reform programme more extensive in size and scope than attempted for many years".[36] At that time, the Government had no intention of publishing or implementing any sort of Civil Service reform plan. PASC warned that ministers "just wanted change to happen, but without a plan, change will be defeated by inertia", and recommended that the Government "produce a comprehensive change programme articulating clearly what it believes the Civil Service is for, how it must change and with a timetable of clear milestones".[37] The Government rejected this recommendation.

30. We very much welcome the fact that, subsequent to its response to our Change in Government Report, the Government reversed its position and agreed to publish a Civil Service reform plan. The burden of our criticism in this Report is not that the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan is too radical but that it is not comprehensive.

31. The Government's Civil Service Reform Plan was published in June 2012. While the Plan emphasised that "the current model of a permanent, politically impartial Civil Service will remain unchanged", it envisaged:

a)  a smaller, pacier, less hierarchical Civil Service. (Numbers will be around 380,000 staff in 2015, down from 480,000 in March 2010;

b)   plans to open up policy-making collaboration between the Civil Service and outside bodies, and to invite outside organisations, such as think tanks and universities, to bid for contracts to provide policy advice and research;

c)  that ministers should have an increased role in the selection of departmental permanent secretaries;

d)  that ministers should be able to bring in a limited number of external appointees without going through open competition procedures;

e)  improvements to the handling of major projects, and a reduction in the turnover of Senior Responsible Officers; and

f)  that permanent secretaries appointed to the main delivery departments would be expected to have had at least two years' experience in a commercial or operational role.[38]

32. The Civil Service Reform Plan proposed "sharpening" accountability and considering alternative accountability systems.[39] The Plan further proposed to strengthen the role of ministers "in both departmental and permanent secretary appointments" in order to reflect their "accountability to Parliament for the performance of their departments".[40] Francis Maude told us in evidence that, at present, there was no power for ministers to remove civil servants.[41] Professor Hood warned that while the "orthodox constitutional view" was that ministers are "overaccountable and civil servants are underaccountable", the Government should act with caution, as by "putting too much blame on the civil servants, Ministers [could] become underaccountable and civil servants become overaccountable".[42]

33. The Reform Plan also set out the Government's intention to establish the "expectation that former Accounting Officers return to give evidence to Select Committees on a time-limited basis where there is a clear rationale to do so".[43] Such a move could require the Government to update the "Osmotherly Rules".

Further reforms: the Policy Exchange Speech

34. In a keynote speech delivered to Policy Exchange in June 2013 [and in a subsequent special evidence session to PASC], the Minister for the Civil Service, Francis Maude, said that "too little" of the Government's Civil Service Reform Plan has been "fully executed". [44] He added:

    The fact remains that too many things that should have been done haven't happened. Other projects have been delayed or are only just getting underway. Ask any civil servant—has the Civil Service really reformed in the last year? I doubt many would say they've seen that much evidence of it.[45]

35. Senior civil servants have sought to stress that officials in charge of reform are, in the words of the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, "moving ahead as fast as we can to deliver those actions".[46] The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, said that the Civil Service Reform Plan would take 5-10 years to implement in full but argued that "if you look at what the Civil Service has achieved over the last three years, it is pretty enormous".[47]

36. Sir Bob told us, however, that the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan would not be "the last word on reform".[48] A Civil Service capabilities plan, Meeting the Challenge of Change, was published in April 2013, setting out four priorities for training: leading and managing change; commercial skills and behaviour; delivering successful projects and programmes; and redesigning services and delivering them digitally. The plan stated that its implementation would mean "more civil servants will become more skilled, delivering a 21st century service for Ministers and the public".[49]

37. In the Policy Exchange speech, the Minister raised "questions" to be considered for future reforms to the Civil Service, on four topics:

a)  Whitehall structure: the Minister considered whether the federal structure of Whitehall departments was still sustainable and whether a unified operating system, or "one set of high standards" would work better.[50]

b)  Accountability: the Minister questioned why there had been no implementation of reforms proposed by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2004, to place all permanent secretaries on four-year terms, with no presumption of renewal.[51]

c)  Further changes to the appointment process for permanent secretaries: the Minister stated that the Government wanted to go further than the "modest" changes made by the Civil Service Commissioner and change the process "so the selection panel would submit to the Secretary of State a choice of candidates and leave the final choice to the Secretary of State".[52]

d)  Increased support for ministers: the Minister cited the greater support available to ministers in America, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He did not commit to any of the systems, but suggested that "it could be about being able to bring in from outside people of experience and ability. These may be found beyond Whitehall but they can just as easily be career civil servants".[53] Mr Maude added that "what they must be is personally responsible to and chosen by the minister - that's the key to sharpening accountability".[54]

38. The Policy Exchange speech contained a number of more radical proposals reflecting frustration with the pace of change since the Civil Service Reform Plan. This slow and unsatisfactory pace of change is all too typical of attempts to reform the Civil Service in recent decades. We found Sir Bob Kerslake's and Sir Jeremy Heywood's response to questions about the pace of change unconvincing and defensive, reinforcing the impression of a fatal division and lack of consensus amongst those leading reform. This demonstrates that reforms conceived and conducted purely by the government of the day are bound to be limited in scope and by the limited attention which the Prime Minister and senior ministers can devote to it, and highlights why fundamental change of the Civil Service requires an independent review.

39. In evidence to us following his Policy Exchange speech the Minister told us that he does not believe there is "a fundamental problem with the Civil Service".[55] He was "loath to believe that fundamental change is needed" and, in his Policy Exchange speech, argued that instead, through "incremental change", the Government could "create a transformed modern 21st century service able to sustain Britain in the global race". He commented that "there was nothing terribly new" in the questions he raised in the Policy Exchange speech.[56] The Minister added that "if there was any suggestion of doing anything that imperilled having a properly politically impartial Civil Service, then [the Government] would not want to go anywhere near it".[57] He has also stated that he was "not persuaded" that the Northcote Trevelyan model of "a permanent, politically impartial Civil Service where appointments are made on merit" should be changed.[58]

40. Given the vehemence of Ministers' criticism of the Civil Service, in public as well as in private, we are surprised that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has not identified any fundamental problems with the Civil Service and does not believe that fundamental change is necessary. Instead the Minister insisted that there are a range of problems which can be addressed individually but this is not a comprehensive approach. As we have already concluded, "incremental change" has severe limitations. Unless change is clearly heralded and given high profile leadership by a united team of ministers and senior officials, it is bound to fail.

Further reforms: the IPPR report

41. PASC requested that the Minister publish the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report into Civil Service accountability shortly after the Policy Exchange speech, and appear again before the Committee to be cross-examined on the contents of his speech. The IPPR Report was commissioned using part of the Government's new contestable policy-making fund, at a cost of approximately £50,000.[59] The IPPR was tasked with producing "a detailed and substantial evidence-based review and assessment of government machinery in other countries and multilateral organisations" to include "a range of specific options and recommendations for further reform of the British Civil Service [and] that explore alternative models of government to the Northcote-Trevelyan model, as well as any recommendations that build on the existing model".[60] The IPPR's report recommended:

a)  Giving the Prime Minister the power to appoint permanent secretaries from a list of appointable candidates;

b)  Providing secretaries of state and ministers who run departments with an extended office of ministerial staff that they personally appoint and who work directly on their behalf (but not a [French-style] Cabinet model exclusively comprised of political appointees);

c)  Making the Head of the Civil Service a full-time post managing all permanent secretaries;

d)  Introducing four-year (renewable) fixed-term contracts for new permanent secretaries;

e)  Making Senior Responsible Owners directly accountable to Parliament; and

f)  Seconding civil servants into the offices of Her Majesty's Opposition to help them with policy development.[61]

42. The report stated that these measures would "strengthen the accountability of senior officials and improve ministerial confidence in the Civil Service", but posed no risk to the "core traditions of the UK Civil Service".[62] The IPPR argued that it was possible to have "personalised", rather than "politicised" support for ministers, through extended private offices directly accountable to ministers. The Minister agreed, stating:

    It is possible to get a bit overexcited about the constitutional effects of anything in the IPPR Report. They are very modest, incremental proposals they are making.[63]

43. Questions have been posed about the use of the Contestable Policy-Making Fund in this situation.[64] The Minister stated that the decision was taken to commission this research to "get an outside perspective and some much more detailed research", following concerns from the Minister that the preparation undertaken by officials for the Civil Service Reform Plan did not provide "very much insight" into the history of Civil Service reform, or international examples.[65] The Minister added that the Cabinet Office "did not have all that many bids" to carry out the work, with several academics and think tanks choosing not to tender for the contract as they did not wish to carry out sponsored research.[66]

44. We welcome the Minister's publication of the Institute of Public Policy Research report on Civil Service accountability systems. This publication establishes the important precedent that research commissioned by the Contestable Policy Fund should be published and should not be treated in confidence as "advice to ministers".

45. There is a close correlation between the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report and the Minister's thinking, as expressed in his Policy Exchange speech. This does raise questions about how objective research commissioned by ministers in this way might be. It should not be a means of simply validating the opinions of ministers. As we shall see later, the fundamental weakness of the IPPR's paper is that it cherry-picks in isolation particular aspects of different countries' systems without understanding the balancing of the cultural, political, administrative and constitutional context in each case. In addition, the IPPR report did not and was not asked to evaluate whether, in practice, other models in various countries resulted in better government than ours. It provides, however, useful international research and insight into the Government's thinking.

46. We note the IPPR's distinction between politicisation and personalisation of support for ministers. We believe this is a crucial point that goes to the heart of the debate around ministerial accountability and selection of key officials.

Further reforms: the One Year On Report

47. The Government's Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report was published on 10 July 2013. In a joint foreword the Minister and the Head of the Civil Service stated that they had come to a "joint assessment that too little of what was set out to be delivered by this point has been fully executed".[67] This was not, the foreword stated, a criticism of the Civil Service, but was "if anything a criticism of ourselves as leaders", for being "too slow to mobilise" after the publication of the Plan, citing a failure to identify adequate resources for the implementation of the Plan, and to identify leadership for the Plan's implementation.[68] Mr Maude and Sir Bob expressed confidence that the pace of Civil Service reform would be increased.[69]

48. The One Year On document reported on progress towards the implementation of the original 18 actions in the Civil Service Reform Plan, and also set out five further reform actions:

a)  Strengthening accountability: The paper commits the Government to "implement proposals to move to a fixed tenure appointment for permanent secretaries for all new appointments with immediate effect", as recommended in the IPPR's report on Civil Service accountability. This would "formalise the presumption that individuals will not continue in their roles once the fixed term of five years ends, unless their tenure is explicitly extended". The paper also committed to publishing a revised version of the Osmotherly Rules in Autumn 2013, following consultation with the Liaison Committee, to strengthen accountability.

b)  Supporting ministers more effectively: The paper cited the IPPR's conclusion that ministers in the UK government were less well-supported than ministers in comparable "Westminster-model" systems—such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore—and stated that "the Government will provide for Ministers in charge of departments the ability to appoint an 'Extended Ministerial Office' subject to the agreement of the Prime Minister". This would be staffed by career civil servants (appointed in line with Civil Service Commission recruitment principles), external appointees and special advisers, with all staff being appointed directly by the minister, to whom they would be personally accountable.

c)  Further integration of corporate functions: The paper stated an aim of securing "at least £1 billion of efficiency savings by 2015/16" through stronger corporate functional leadership, including in HR, IT, procurement and commercial services.

d)  Further improving delivery of major projects: Further reforms to the management of major projects (including reforms to "project initiation, assurance and intervention, and post-project audit") are to be implemented by the Major Projects Authority by April 2014.

e)  Building capability by deploying talent more effectively: A contract will be put out to tender under the Contestable Policy Fund "on possible interventions to remove any blockages to our most talented people succeeding in the Civil Service, and on how we support them more effectively in their roles". A new "diversity strategy" will be published by March 2014.[70]

49. The very last action in the original 2012 Reform Plan was to change the "culture and behaviours" in the Civil Service, citing the new competency framework as a driver for this change.[71] The One Year On document stated that "with hindsight, this action did not go far enough to meet the challenges that the Civil Service faces".[72] Instead, the paper stated that the Minister and the Head of the Civil Service had decided "to develop a longer-term vision for a reformed Civil Service—the 21st Century Civil Service".[73] This vision would include:

    defining the key features of a reformed Civil Service; mapping out how the Reform Plan actions already help deliver the 21st Century Civil Service, and which are the actions that will create the biggest impact; and identifying the best way to measure progress.[74]

Details of this longer-term vision were not included in the One Year On document.

50. The One Year On report attempts to reconcile the differences between senior officials and ministers about the pace of reform, but the protest that the "joint assessment" is "not a criticism of the Civil Service" serves to underline the tensions between ministers and officials. In the event, the new proposals in the One Year On report were modest. The proposals themselves are a watered down version of the Policy Exchange speech and the IPPR report, suggesting that in the end, the Cabinet shrank from approving more radical proposals, in particular the granting of the final choice of permanent secretaries to the departmental minister. The compromise proposed by the Civil Service Commission in respect of the appointment of departmental permanent secretaries remains in place, but on probation.

51. Neither the Civil Service Reform Plan nor the One Year On paper are strategic documents. The Government has admitted they were never intended to be so, but we continue to maintain that the lack of a strategic vision for the future of the Civil Service means reform will continue to be confined to a number of disjointed initiatives, some of which may prove permanent, but most of which will either prove to be temporary or will fail to be implemented altogether. The Civil Service Capabilities Plan sets out the skills needed for a 21st century Civil Service without ever defining what the role of the Civil Service perhaps should and could be in the 21st century. The IPPR paper, while a welcome addition to discussion around the future of the Civil Service, was not asked to look at the overall state of the Civil Service, or consider structural changes to the Whitehall model or role of ministers, for example. Once again, we have to reiterate that there has been no comprehensive assessment of the problems and challenges facing the Civil Service, and therefore no case for reform has been articulated. This reflects the lack of any assessment of the capacity for leadership in the Civil Service in order to lead and to implement change.

52. The Government has not set out the challenges facing the Civil Service in the future, or attempted to answer the question of what the Civil Service is for in the modern age. We therefore very much welcome the new emphasis in the One Year On report on addressing "culture and behaviours" in the Civil Service, in the commitment "to develop a longer-term vision for a reformed Civil Service—the 21st Century Civil Service". This very much reflects our own thinking, but we remain sceptical about how this is to be achieved.

36   Public Administration Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Change in Government: The agenda for leadership, HC 714, paras 64, 108 Back

37   Public Administration Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Change in Government: The agenda for leadership, HC 714, paras 61, 64 Back

38   Ibid.  Back

39   HM Government, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, p 20 Back

40   HM Government, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, p 21 Back

41   Q 1054 Back

42   Q 37 Back

43   HM Government, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, p 20 Back

44   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013,  Back

45   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013,  Back

46   Q 827 Back

47   Q 827 Back

48   Q 838 Back

49   Civil Service, Meeting the Challenge of Change (April 2013) Back

50   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

51   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

52   Q 1090, "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

53   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

54   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

55   Q 1113 Back

56   Q 1115 Back

57   Q 1178 Back

58   "Ministers and Mandarins: speaking truth unto power", Cabinet Office, 4 June 2013, Back

59   "Operation and structure of government machinery review", Contracts Finder, 6 August 2012,  Back

60   Q 1096 Back

61   Cabinet Office, Accountability and responsiveness in the senior Civil Service: Lessons from Overseas: A Report by the IPPR, June 2013, p 112 Back

62   Cabinet Office, Accountability and responsiveness in the senior Civil Service: Lessons from Overseas: A Report by the IPPR, June 2013, p 112 Back

63   Q 1212 Back

64   Richard, D and Smith, M.J, Ministers and Mandarins : The IPPR's 2013 Review of the Senior Civil Service: A Commentary, Back

65   Q 1137 Back

66   Qq 1140, 81 Back

67   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013, p 4 Back

68   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013, p 5 Back

69   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013, p 5 Back

70   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013 Back

71   HM Government, Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012 Back

72   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013 Back

73   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013 Back

74   Civil Service, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, July 2013 Back

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Prepared 6 September 2013