Former UK Cabinet Office minister launches review into civil service governance and accountability

By on 31/07/2022 | Updated on 31/07/2022
A picture of Francis Maude, who drove the UK civil service reform agenda during his time as Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015
Lord Francis Maude/ Photo courtesy Foreign & Commonwealth Office via Flickr

Francis Maude has launched a review into the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK civil service, focusing on leadership responsibility and autonomy and models of accountability.

Maude oversaw wide-ranging reforms during his time as Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015, and conducted a review of the Cabinet Office in 2020 that called for functions to be given greater authority to hold departments to account.

The latest review was proposed in the Declaration on Government Reform in June last year. Its objectives – as set out in the terms of reference published last week – include considering how “governance and accountability structures and processes in the civil service could be improved to make decision-making in policy delivery more efficient and effective”.

It will also examine whether civil servants are “suitably empowered, and have adequate levers at their disposal to deliver against expectations”, and review models of accountability for decisions “drawing on international best practice and experiences during the pandemic and taking account of the role and design of ministerial directions”.

Read more: Minister who oversaw UK civil service job cuts ‘set to lead governance review’

Maude said he welcomed the government’s commitment to reform. “The way government makes decisions, how they are implemented, and how ministers and officials are held to account, are all essential to delivering good outcomes for our citizens.”

Scope and focus

The review is expected to analyse various ways in which governance is practiced, both centrally and within departments. According to the terms of reference, this will involve assessing the “balance of responsibility and autonomy” between ministers and permanent secretaries, who lead departments.

The review will also examine the scope of management powers held by the minister for the civil service (the prime minister); assess whether delegations to the head of the civil service and permanent secretaries – such as the authority to appoint and dismiss officials – are sufficiently flexible and actionable under current legislation; and examine the role, status and composition of departmental boards and committees.

The beaten path to reform

Maude’s experience of delivering reforms includes shrinking the civil service headcount to a post-war low of 384,260, as part of the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan. His involvement in the latest review comes as the government seeks to cull around 91,000 civil service jobs, in a bid to return to the staffing levels of 2016.

As Cabinet Office minister throughout the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Maude developed ‘professions’ in digital skills, finance, communications, policy and operational delivery, and introduced changes to the way permanent secretaries are appointed.

Read more: UK government seeks global best practice on civil service accountability

News of the government’s intention to reform the civil service began to emerge in 2020. At the time, the agenda was being pushed by then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser of PM Boris Johnson.

Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, said of reform plans in 2020 that his main priority would be to “remove the obstacles” that prevent civil servants from doing their jobs effectively. Burdensome bureaucracy, excessive risk aversion, inaccessible data and barriers to collaborating with departments were, he said “the type of inhibitions that stop people doing what they want to do, which is to better serve citizens; and our responsibility – politicians and senior civil servants collectively – is to remove those burdens”.

Maude will chair the latest review, with the support of Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo, and is expected to submit his recommendations to ministers in the autumn.

Read more: ‘These will have to include frontline roles’: can UK make 91,000 jobs cuts?

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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