The civil service reform we need

Would you take a job where you are  accountable for everything, but you cannot appoint or remove your staff,  who are accountable for nothing?  Of course not.  Yet that is exactly  what we ask ministers to do.  One of the first things you discover as a  minister is that civil servants, even those in your own private office,  don't actually work for you.  And since officials can't be held to  account for departmental failings, and ministers can't meaningfully be  held responsible for every detail, the reality is that no-one is  accountable at all.

No doubt the public believe that a minister has great power, and of  course in some respects they do.  Most of the time, however, I exercised  it by making requests to officials in the apologetic manner of Dad's  Army's Sergeant Wilson: "Would you mind awfully ...?"  Where officials  were good, they were very good indeed.  The problem was that where  performance was poor - ministerial correspondence in the Home Office was  particularly dire - it was extraordinarily difficult to effect change.

Illiterate letters are the least of a government's problems.  As Richard Bacon MP and Chris Hope have written  ahead of their book to be published on Tuesday, the mismanagement of  major programmes such as the now-abandoned NHS IT project or the West  Coast Mainline franchise has been ruinously expensive.  Yet "the public  very rarely sees anyone in Whitehall being held to account for  mistakes.  This has created what we have called ‘Teflon civil servants' -  those officials whose career progress appears unaffected by spending  cock-ups which have cost taxpayers millions or even billions."

Today, the IPPR publishes a report with recommendations that would be an  important step towards addressing these problems and improving the  effectiveness and accountability of government.  They propose that the  Prime Minister should have the power to appoint Permanent Secretaries,  albeit from a list of appointable candidates. 

This is not an arbitrary  recommendation but is based on a comparative study with other countries  which finds that the UK is "highly restrictive in terms of the limited  powers ministers have to make appointments."  Similar systems to our  own, such as in Canada and Australia, allow greater ministerial say, yet  "there is little evidence of partisan politicisation taking place in  either of these countries."  Both rate more highly than the UK in the World Bank Indicator of Government Effectiveness.

The ex-mandarins and other worthies who comprise the Civil Service Commission are  fighting a spirited rearguard action against such dangerous colonial  ideas, but they must know that they are losing the battle.  Even the august Institute for Government has echoed the call for Hacker to have the final say over the appointment of Sir Humphrey.   As the IfG notes, this is effectively the system operated for hundreds  of other important public appointments.  Would we be happy if there was  no ministerial approval of the chairmanship of the BBC?

Together with proposals for strengthening the role of the Head of the  Civil Service - who should clearly not be part-time - introducing fixed  term contracts for permanent secretaries and increasing the  accountability of operational leaders, these proposals seem less  revolutionary than common sensical.

The second key IPPR recommendation is even more significant:  Secretaries of State should have an extended office of ministerial staff  that they personally appoint and who work directly on their behalf in  the department.  These staff should comprise a mixture of officials,  external experts, and political advisers.

As a minister in charge of a major reform programme, I frequently  felt less supported than I had been in opposition, when I had only the  tiniest team of advisers and researchers.  Private offices are busy and  committed, handling vast amounts of paper and diaries.  I got on well  with my dedicated and loyal private secretaries.  But as the report  notes, these offices are relatively underpowered.  What I needed was  people with experience and policy expertise to help me drive the agenda  and interrogate proposals.

I didn't want party-political advisers, and we must move away from  the idea that all that's needed is simply more SPADS.  The IPPR report  explicitly does not recommend a ministerial ‘Cabinet' system of  exclusively political appointees.  But, again, it does point out that  Australia and Canada both have hundreds of ministerial advisers compared  to the 80 or so allowed under our current arbitrary limit.  Visiting  ministers from other countries are often astonished by the lack of  personal support for their British colleagues.

The civil service effectively exercises a monopoly over policy  advice.  But when government has become ever bigger and more complex,  what's needed is a system which sees a greater interchange of the  brightest and best between Whitehall and the outside world.  Commercial  acumen and the experience of running organisations are found outside  Whitehall, not within.

Enabling  able and experienced people to contribute to the running of government  will require careful safeguards to guard against improper commercial  influence and partisan activity.  But the time has come to challenge the  reflex claim that a wholly impartial civil service matters above all  else.  What the public want is effective government.

It is significant that the IPPR report has been published at all, and  that the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, has welcomed it.  His recent speech to Policy Exchange  gave the clearest indication that the Government intends to take the  agenda of greater Whitehall accountability and support for ministers  forward.  The report itself shows the benefits of reform: going outside  the civil service for policy advice has produced suggestions for more  effective government that simply wouldn't have come from within.  That  ability to commission external advice was a key element of Maude's Civil Service Reform Plan, published a year ago.

The lazy portrayal of the Government's plans is that they are an an  attack on the civil service.  That is how the opponents of change always  seek to demonise public sector reforms.  The truth is that the best  civil servants have a huge amount to gain from plans which will improve  accountability and performance.

There's been a great deal of focus on interesting new political  appointments to generate policy, but delivery matters at least as much.   Governments are judged on how well they govern.  That is why ensuring  that ministers have the capacity to deliver on their promises and that  departments perform properly should be a priority.

The Cabinet Office has quietly been at the vanguard of highly  effective government reforms.  Its Efficiency and Reform Group has  achieved nearly £20 billion of savings already.  The civil service will  be 25 per cent smaller by 2015 and there will be a third fewer quangos.   The transparency agenda is opening up government data, a far more  significant step forward for accountability than its ugly sister of  freedom of information.  Now is the time to go further.

The IPPR report lists the factors driving the need for reform,  including the 24/7 media, rising public expectations of government, and  complex policy challenges which need joined-up policy responses.  All of  this requires government which is leaner, more capable and more  responsive.  We won't get that unless it is properly accountable and  ministers are equipped to deliver.

Kevin Wilson