The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government - Constitution Committee Contents

CHAPTER 4: Strengthening the Civil Service

218.  The third function of the Cabinet Office is "Strengthening the Civil Service—to ensure that the civil service is organised effectively and has the capability in terms of skills, values and leadership to deliver the Government's objectives".[20] Several witnesses argued that the threefold Cabinet Office functions were an uneasy combination. Dr Heffernan thought that they were "essentially incompatible". (Q 35) Professor Kavanagh argued that the Cabinet Office was "overloaded" and had "lost sight of its original objectives", (Q 45) while Lord McNally thought that some of the Cabinet Office's functions were "mutually exclusive". (Q 106) Dr Blick and Professor Jones thought that "the Cabinet Office suffers from institutional schizophrenia" and had "taken on multiple personalities, which can contradict one another". (p 174) Perhaps the greatest area of contention in this area was whether it was appropriate for the Cabinet Office to combine the responsibilities outlined in the previous chapters with that of managing the Civil Service.


219.  Witnesses expressed concern at how the Cabinet Office's responsibility for strengthening the Civil Service could be reconciled with its other functions. The Cabinet Office has not always exercised responsibility for the Civil Service. Prior to 1968, the Treasury held departmental responsibility. Following the recommendation of the Fulton Report, a new Civil Service Department was established in that year. It was abolished in 1981, when its responsibilities were split between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office only assumed sole responsibility for the Civil Service in 1995. (Memorandum by Sir Robin Mountfield, pp 68-9)

220.  Peter Riddell argued that the "dual role" had produced "a lot of tensions" and "confusion" and that responsibility for the Civil Service should be handled separately. (QQ 20, 33) Dr Heffernan claimed that "we hide the Civil Service away", and recommended the re-establishment of the Civil Service Department. (QQ 46, 68) Whilst advocating that responsibility for the Civil Service should lie in the centre, Sir Richard Mottram agreed that it did not necessarily need to be undertaken in the Cabinet Office. (p 35)

221.  On the other hand, Dr June Burnham, formerly Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University, acknowledged that whilst "the 'architecture' joining civil service management to the Cabinet Office policy role is the least settled organisationally … the least problematical solution has been attachment to the Cabinet Office". (p 178)

222.  The debate about responsibility for the Civil Service is intrinsically linked to the question of whether the Cabinet Secretary should be the Head of the Home Civil Service.


223.  The role of Head of the Civil Service has changed hands over the years. The post was held by the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury for many years, until the Permanent Secretary of the new Civil Service Department assumed responsibility in 1968. In 1981, the Cabinet Secretary and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury became joint Heads of the Home Civil Service, until the Cabinet Secretary assumed sole responsibility in 1983. (Memorandum by Sir Robin Mountfield, p 68)

224.  Sir Robin Mountfield thought that the combination of the posts of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service "creates a massive burden, and it is a matter of perennial debate whether the posts should be combined. … If they were not combined, the case for Civil Service management being in the Cabinet Office would be weaker, and the case for a separate Civil Service Department stronger … The prime claimed advantage … is the need for somebody with frequent access to the Prime Minister to be there to lead and represent the Civil Service ... The contrary argument is that he may be somewhat conflicted … There is an argument on both sides of this debate, therefore, and it seems to me that you could run it either way." (Q 173, p 69)

225.  Lord Lipsey told us that he did not think that one person should hold both posts, since they are "quite different functions and … protecting and promoting the status of civil servants is best separated from … what the Cabinet Secretary now inevitably is, the Prime Minister's senior policy adviser". (Q 105)

226.  Sir Michael Bichard did not think it possible for one person to be able to fulfil both roles. (Q 195) Rachel Lomax agreed that "the combined role has been a force for blurring boundaries and … they are functionally quite different. There is no reason on earth why the Head of the Civil Service should be the Cabinet Secretary. If you look at the personal qualities required, increasingly you need different sorts of people". (Q 195)

227.  Professor Kavanagh argued that it was necessary to consider whether a separate, specialised head of the Civil Service was needed because the burdens on the Cabinet Secretary "are so enormous these days". (Q 45) Sir Richard Mottram agreed that the post "is seriously overloaded", and that the two roles "require different skills and experience … the logic and implications of combining the roles need more testing". (p 35) On the other hand, Jonathan Powell thought that the principal job of the Cabinet Secretary should be to manage the reform of the Civil Service. (p 181)

228.  Lords Armstrong, Butler and Wilson argued that the present arrangements had "worked well". (p 55) Lord Armstrong told us that, as Cabinet Secretary, he had thought that "the senior official in the best position to act as Head of the whole of the Civil Service was the Cabinet Secretary, simply because he was the senior official who saw and dealt with the Prime Minister most frequently … the spider at the centre of the web." (QQ 120, 134)

229.  Lord Turnbull agreed that a separation "has been tried twice and it was a flop both times. If you talk to the people who got the job as Head of the Home Civil Service … I think that they would probably say, 'I wish I'd never done it'. They got very badly isolated." (Q 165)

230.  The current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, believed that the functions of the post fit together well and that previous attempts to separate them out had not worked well, (Q 342) and Tessa Jowell argued that "the current configuration of responsibilities works well". (p 132)

231.  We find persuasive the arguments which we have heard that the current arrangement where the Cabinet Secretary acts as Head of the Civil Service has worked well. We therefore recommend that the Cabinet Secretary should continue to fulfil the function of Head of the Civil Service, and that the Cabinet Office should retain responsibility for managing the Civil Service.


232.  The Cabinet Secretary plays a pivotal role in the operation of the Cabinet Office and the centre as a whole. Aside from his role as Head of the Home Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary has traditionally had primary responsibility for supporting Cabinet and the Prime Minister in his role as Chair of Cabinet.

233.  Former Cabinet Secretaries gave us an insight into the broader aspects of the role. Lord Armstrong told us that the Cabinet Secretary acts as a guardian of the collective responsibility of government. (Q 109) Lord Butler said that, in his experience, "a Cabinet Secretary was the chief engineer on the ship of state, making sure that the decisions that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet took on the bridge were transmitted into the system". (Q 113) In their joint submission, they and their successor, Lord Wilson, asserted that they had each "been constantly conscious of his responsibility to the Cabinet collectively and of the need to have regard to the needs and responsibilities of the other members of the Cabinet (and indeed of other Ministers) as well as those of the Prime Minister". (p 54)

234.  Sir Gus O'Donnell told us that his role included "advising the Prime Minister and being at his side for key meetings ... You need to be clear that you want to be involved in the big, strategic decisions", such as economic issues in the current climate. (Q 346) He also said that he had a role in relation to cross-departmental working, because "if you want them to collaborate and in particular pool money they need a bit of bashing heads together". (Q 349)

235.  There was also recognition that the role of Cabinet Secretary was an onerous one. Lord Armstrong told us that "the job of Cabinet Secretary is a very big one and involves a great deal of work, with very long hours and many pressures". He told us that his assumption of responsibility for the Civil Service in 1981 necessitated the delegation of other functions, such as the preparation of briefs for the Prime Minister on Cabinet business. (Q 134)

236.  His successors were confronted with a similar dilemma, which they responded to in different ways. Lord Turnbull did not think the Cabinet Secretary could combine his role as the Prime Minister's security adviser with his other functions. His solution was to delegate his role as the Prime Minister's principal security and intelligence adviser. (QQ 165, 173) Sir Gus O'Donnell told us that, though he did delegate much of this work, he was the accounting officer for the security and intelligence agencies. (Q 348)

237.  Several other witnesses felt that the post of Cabinet Secretary was overloaded. Sir Richard Mottram reflected on attempts "to help tackle overload by vesting significant responsibilities in another Permanent Secretary in charge of public service change (as in the 1990s) or more recently the cluster of intelligence, security and civil contingencies but these arrangements are no longer in place. This makes the overload problem worse." (p 35) Sir Michael Bichard felt that "the Cabinet Secretary ought to have very direct responsibility for … supporting the Prime Minister and the Cabinet", but "you probably need someone" reporting to the Cabinet Secretary who is "a director for civil and public services". (Q 186)

238.  For Peter Riddell, there was a wider problem, in that he argued that in recent years, "Cabinet Secretaries found themselves less as a key co-ordinator of policy advice than their predecessors were and much more personnel heads of the Civil Service and in charge of delivery and delivery co-ordination". Mr Riddell argued that a contributory factor was the presence "around Tony Blair" of "Jonathan Powell, Alastair Campbell and others as well as quite powerful special advisers on the policy side". (Q 26) Sir Richard Mottram said that "developments since 1997 have at times significantly weakened the Cabinet Secretary's role as a strategy and policy adviser at the heart of government". (p 35) Dr Heffernan thought that, whilst the role had grown, the Cabinet Secretary's "personal authority has probably diminished in the past ten years". (Q 45) Dr Seldon agreed that "the Cabinet Secretary needs to be again a figure of real stature … who can stand up for the Civil Service and stand up to the Prime Minister". (p 182)

239.  While Lord Donoughue did not think that there had been a "decline in the calibre of individuals", he felt that recent Cabinet Secretaries "appear frustrated to some extent" because "the bureaucratic machine around them was somehow dismantled and it became much more difficult for them to impose the efficient will that had been the characteristic of Sir John Hunt", Cabinet Secretary from 1973-79. (QQ 103-4)

240.  On the other hand, Baroness Hogg told us that "the job is as important as it ever was … and I have the greatest respect for the current Cabinet Secretary … The question … is whether the pressures on them have changed and whether it is more difficult to do the job". (Q 306) Tessa Jowell argued that "the Cabinet Secretary retains an important and central role in providing strategic policy advice". (p 132)

241.  Sir Gus O'Donnell rejected the claims that he had a reduced voice in big strategic decisions (Q 347):

"It depends on the engagement between the individual Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day as to how they use their Cabinet Secretary, but I would certainly say I am not short of things to do … I certainly believe that I have all the personal authority I need." (Q 346)

242.  We note the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell's assertion that he has "all the personal authority I need", and agree with his assessment that much "depends on the engagement between the individual Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day as to how they use their Cabinet Secretary." Nonetheless we note with concern the evidence we have received suggesting that the authority of the Cabinet Secretary has diminished. The Cabinet Secretary has a vital role to play in ensuring the effective operation of government, and should retain the authority needed to fulfil this function with the full support and backing of the Prime Minister.


243.  An addition to the work of the Cabinet Secretary is the Capability Review Programme. The programme was launched by Sir Gus O'Donnell in 2005 and has been conducted, since June 2007, by the Civil Service Capability Unit in the Cabinet Office. Capability Reviews aim to address "underlying capability issues that impact on effective delivery, such as:

  • Do departments have the right strategic and leadership capabilities?
  • Do they know how well they are performing, and do they have the tools to fix their problems when they underachieve?
  • Do their people have the right skills to meet both current and future challenges?
  • Do they engage effectively with their key stakeholders, partners and the public?" [21]

All departments across Whitehall had been reviewed by December 2007. The second phase of reviews commenced in early 2008.

244.  The Government stated that Capability Reviews had "led to a step change in the way departments are held to account for their ability to lead, set strategy and deliver on their objectives". They argued that the Programme had been successful, with all departments demonstrating "evidence of improvement", and pointed out that a 2009 independent review by the National Audit Office "confirmed that the programme had improved capability in Whitehall departments". (p 118)

245.  Sir Gus O'Donnell argued that Capability Reviews "have provided support and opportunity for Permanent Secretaries to be challenged and informed by peers from both the public and private sectors with a view to enhancing leadership and delivery". (p 162) Tessa Jowell likewise asserted that they "have opened up Whitehall to external challenge and provided Permanent Secretaries with the opportunity to gain highly detailed objective assessment of performance from experts in both the public and private sectors", and that "the Cabinet Secretary has a strong focus on the capability of departments, across the range of their activities". (pp 131-2)

246.  Other witnesses affirmed the value of Capability Reviews. Sir Michael Bichard thought that "the current Cabinet Secretary has shown a great deal of courage in putting those in place … there are criticisms of Capability Reviews but people do take them seriously … and permanent secretaries and departments have taken notice of what they have said and acted upon it … I think they have been a force for good". (Q 189) He did add that they needed to be developed, and hoped that in the future they would place more emphasis on "the importance of joining-up across not just departments but across sectors". (Q 194)

247.  Sir Richard Mottram told us that Capability Reviews were "a partnership between the centre and departments, and I think the view of departments … is that it has worked well and it has improved their capability". (Q 84) Baroness Hogg said that the work that the Cabinet Secretary was carrying out in this regard was "enormous". (Q 306)

248.  Peter Riddell agreed that Capability Reviews had probably "improved the quality of top financial management and personnel management in departments". However, he said that the weakness of this approach was that they could not deal with "the whole complexity of the Civil Service-minister relationship … there is that sense that the Cabinet Office is acting as a check but it is a very unsatisfactory one … are they the proper people to do it?" (Q 29)

249.  We note the work undertaken by the Cabinet Office in delivering Capability Reviews of departmental activity. We believe that the Cabinet Office is the most appropriate department to undertake this work.

20  Back

21   Civil Service (2009) Capability Reviews: Background  Back

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