Ministers and Mandarins: Time for Change?

The IPPR report on “Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service: Lessons from Overseas” is a welcome contribution to a debate that has been bubbling away for some time now about the fundamental relationship between Ministers and Mandarins in Whitehall. I’m not going to go through the whole report, but just give my reaction to their main recommendations:


1. Giving the Prime Minister the power to appoint Permanent Secretaries, choosing from a list of appointable candidates. The Civil Service Commission would continue to oversee the recruitment process to ensure appointments are based on merit, but the final decision would now be made by the Prime Minister, not the First Commissioner. The Commission would be tasked with drawing up a list of appointable candidates, which the Prime Minister would choose from.

 This is the IPPR proposal I have least sympathy with. We already have a form of quasi-monarchical Premiership. PMs already decide on the structure of government departments and who should run them without any effective Parliamentary control (other than the ‘nuclear option’ of a vote of no confidence). If Ministers are going to be involved in appointing Permanent Secretaries then it should be through a much more colleagial system – my suggestion would something like a Senior Appointments Panel including Ministers and the Civil Service Commissioner. We need a system with checks and balances, not yet more arbitrary Prime Ministerial power.


2. 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 in the department. Ministerial staff should comprise a mixture of officials, external experts, and political advisers. We do not recommend a ‘Cabinet’ model made up exclusively of political appointees.

This is one of the two strongest recommendations. The asymmetry of power and resources between Ministers and Mandarins really does cause problems of ‘departmental capture’. There are also obvious precedents. The Policy Units in Downing St provide something very close to this for the PM, and more recently for the Deputy PM too. The former Strategy Unit did a similar job with a similar “mixed” composition of policy advisers, experts and civil servants. These were (briefly) replicated in some Ministries.  They could help to improve policy-making, especially if they included people with real front-line experience.

3. Strengthening the role of the Head of the Civil Service in respect of holding Permanent Secretaries accountable. The Head of the Civil Service should be a full-time post, taking on all responsibilities for managing Permanent Secretaries, providing a similar role to that performed by the New Zealand State Service Commissioner.

First, I agree the Head of the Civil Service should be a full-time post and said as much in evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee when it looked at the split of the Cabinet Secretary and Head roles. Second, in our Cabinet-based system of government it has always been an issue just how far the “center” can, or should, control Ministries and their Perm Secs. Again, as with the appointments issue, perhaps this should be something for a more collegial system – including civil servants, ministers and the Civil Service Commission?


4. Introducing fixed-term contracts for new Permanent Secretaries. These would be for four years and would be renewable depending on performance. The Head of the Civil Service would be responsible for appraising Permanent Secretaries but the ultimate decision over whether to renew contracts should rest with the Prime Minister.

This is probably going to be the reform that will most irk the Mandarins – and will have the least real impact if implemented. We have had fixed-term contracts for heads of civil service agencies since they were set up in the early 1990s. In all that time hardly any – if indeed any – have had their contracts terminated at the end of the contract period. Plenty have been sacked, but always over something specific that didn’t coincide with the contract. Some have even had to be paid off as a result (e,g, the large payment made to Derek Lewis after he was sacked as head of the Prison Service). And the reality is that the average ‘life-span’ of a Perm Sec is probably not much longer than the 4 years being proposed as the fixed term contract anyway. So expect a lot of sound and fury over nothing.

5. Strengthening the external accountability of senior civil servants in key operational roles. Senior Responsible Owners – the senior Whitehall officials charged with major programmatic and implementation tasks – should be made directly accountable to Parliament for their performance (in the same way that Permanent Secretaries appear in their own right as accounting officers).

This is by far the most radical suggestion that would have the biggest long-term, of slow, impact. The doctrine that the “civil service has no constitutional personality separate and apart from that of the government of the day” – or that only Ministers are accountable to Parliament – has been used to shield civil service blunders for far too long. Since Ministers now rarely resign over departmental blunders, civil servants are effectively immune from accountability for failure. Making SROs – including people who used to be the SRO for something but who have moved on – will start a process of making civil servants properly and openly accountable. If properly carried through this would be a revolutionary step.

It was outside the scope of this report, but such a change would also need a big strengthening of the scrutiny capacity of Parliament.

6. Enabling the Civil Service to better support Opposition parties by allowing civil servants to be seconded in into the offices of opposition parties to help them with policy development.

This builds on existing practices that have evolved since the run up to the 1997 General Election and puts it onto a more continuous basis. It should, in my view, also be firmly rooted in developing new Parliamentary structures.

Overall I think the IPPR report helps the debate. It is balanced and tries to be realistic about what is achievable. Something clearly needs to be done to improve the performance of Whitehall. Whether it can be done – and made to stick – without some degree of all-Party agreement is another question. There is a danger that even if these proposals were all implemented (which is doubtful and this stage of the electoral cycle) they could all be undone by a change of government.


7 thoughts on “Ministers and Mandarins: Time for Change?

  1. Perhaps the ippr should just come right out and recommend that the Prime Minister should become the “President”?
    Permanent Secs should be appointed by, and serve in that role at the discretion of Parliament (and therefore by inference by the govt.) while remaining permanent full time employees of the Civil Service.

    1. Actually, the US President (assuming that’s what you are referring to) has in many respects far less power than a UK PM. S/he cannot simply close down Government organisations by fiat (as Cameron may do with DCMS). It would require a vote of Congress in the US. And of course Congress has controls over finance, appointments and much else too. And of course the President only runs – in tandem with Congress – the Federal government.

  2. If the PM appoints a Perm Sec on a four year contract, what happens to her/him when there is a change of administration – or even in cases a change of departmental Minister?

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