I am accountable to my own ideal of a civil servant.
Sir William Armstrong, former head of the civil service (speaking in the 1970s)
It is both ironic and encouraging that the Coalition government is setting out plans for reforming the civil service (£).
Ironic, because like many oppositions before them, the Conservatives came to power promising to restore the integrity of the civil service, cut the number of special advisers and end ‘political interference’ in the workings of Whitehall, only to find themselves falling out with their officials, bolstering the special adviser cadre and seeking to reform the Mandarinate. It is encouraging, however, because for all its reforms to public services, the Labour government never directly addressed the reform of the senior civil service. It undertook incremental changes and brought in senior people from outside Whitehall to run key departments and units, but it never set out ministerial reform plans for the civil service as a whole, as the Coalition government is now doing.
What should we make of those plans? Fast-track promotion for excellent civil servants already happens. Indeed, really bright young civil servants who catch the eye of ministers and permanent secretaries tend to get work piled on them. They become trusted to deliver, so their responsibilities pile up.
Sacking poor performers happens less often (£): gardening leave, a posting to a little-known quango or generous early retirement are the preferred solutions. Requiring top mandarins to have served in big management jobs for a couple of years in their careers doesn’t seem particularly onerous. These days most will have done a secondment to local government or come into their posts from outside Whitehall anyway. But it might prevent the occasional intellectual drafter of smooth prose who can’t manage anything from making it to the top.
Ditto policy ‘contestability’. Opening up small pockets of Whitehall funding to thinktanks and consultancies is hardly earth-shattering. Ministers already take advice informally from wonks, backbenchers and pushy consultants. It doesn’t herald the privatisation of the civil service by any stretch of the imagination.
So we come to the big issue that these reforms appear to leave untouched: accountability. The civil service is the last remaining institution of British public life that is accountable to no-one but itself. Ministers are held to account for everything that happens in their departments, but cannot hire and fire their civil servants. Aside from permanent secretaries, senior civil servants do not have to report to parliament for their actions. This is what lies at the heart of the dispute between Margaret Hodge, chair of the powerful public accounts committee, and the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell.
The best way forward would be to more clearly distinguish between ministerial responsibility for policy and resources, and officials’ responsibility for delivery and administration. This would redress the governance vacuum at the heart of Whitehall, overturning the now anachronistic convention that ministers must be solely accountable to parliament for their departmental business. All senior civil servants (grade 5 and above) would then appear before select committees, if called. Permanent secretaries could be directly performance managed on fixed-term contracts.
Unless the accountability question is tackled, reform of the civil service will remain a piecemeal affair.