UK civil service review proposes giving ministers a greater role in some appointments

By on 13/11/2023 | Updated on 14/11/2023
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

Much anticipated review also calls for post of head of civil service to be split from cabinet secretary

A major review of the UK civil service’s governance and accountability has called for ministers to be given a greater say in the appointments of some government officials.

The independent review, undertaken by former Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude, also recommended that the role of head of the civil service be decoupled from the post of cabinet secretary in order to more effectively “drive through an agreed programme of civil service reforms and improvements”.

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. He was asked to review civil service governance and accountability in 2022.

Setting out his report today, Maude said the initial expectation was that the review would take no more than a few months. “That it has taken a full year reflects the breadth and complexity of the issues involved, and the time needed to uncover the current arrangements for governance and accountability, both in theory and in practice.”

Maude concluded that the arrangements for governance and accountability of the civil service are “unclear, opaque and incomplete”. He put this down to the power to manage the civil service being given to the prime minister, but there being no agreed process for delegating this responsibility, either to other ministers or to civil servants to drive modernisation initiatives.

Alongside this, there are increasing demands being made of the centre of government – the prime ministers’ office, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – leading to “confusion about where responsibilities lie and a lack of clear lines of accountability,” Maude concluded. “Other jurisdictions with similar systems provide signposts to improved arrangements.”

Call for greater political involvement in appointments

Maude said that some of his findings “overturn assumptions casually made by many, including myself”, among them his call for an increased political role in some appointments.

He called for “arrangements for the appointment of civil servants [to] be revisited to allow ministers a greater role in some appointments”.

In particular, Maude recommended ministers should be “made more aware” of the role they can choose to have in the selection of permanent secretaries in their department.

Other areas of flexibility should be expanded, Maude recommended. The prime minister’s current flexibility to name permanent secretaries from a list of applicants deemed appointable should be extended to the role of directors-general, where currently the PM is asked to approve the candidate who has come top in the merit order during the recruitment process.

“[It] is not obvious that the prime minister should be expected to approve the candidate who has been put at the top of the merit order, or indeed that the panel should be obliged to rank the candidates other than to judge that they are of sufficient merit to be appointable,” Maude said. “There is no obvious reason why the prime minister should not make the final selection having consulted the minister in charge of the relevant department as well as the first civil service commissioner and the head of civil service.”

Maude has also recommended that ministers be able to personally manage recruitment processes for officials as “[if] ministers do not have clear authority to put in place the people they believe are necessary for the discharge of their duties, there will always be an incentive for ministers to blame the civil service for failures”.

Departmental secretaries of state and ministers should be able to make a direct appointment of a civil service chief of staff, who is head of the office. As a civil servant, this chief of staff would be able to direct other civil servants. Currently, chiefs of staff are special advisers and therefore unable to direct officials.

Standalone head of civil service role should be created

These changes to civil service recruitment should form part of what Maude called “a comprehensive and transparent scheme of delegation of the prime minister’s statutory power to manage the civil service”.

Currently, there is no overall scheme for how the PM’s powers are exercised in practice, and Maude said this should be led by a full time head of the civil service “with a mandate from the prime minister to drive through an agreed programme of civil service reforms and improvements”.

This would mean separating the role of head of the civil service from the cabinet secretary.

The role of civil service head has “nearly always been a part-time role”, Maude noted, doubling up with either the role of cabinet secretary or a departmental permanent secretary.

Maude also recommended reforms to the centre of government. He called for the centre of government to be reorganised to create: an Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which would be the strategic centre; and an Office of Budget and Management (OBM). This office would take on the management of public expenditure from the Treasury, with the finance ministry retaining responsibility for economic and fiscal policy, including the overall expenditure envelope, taxation and financial services regulation.

This arrangement would align the structure of the UK’s government much more closely with a number of countries whose government is based on Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, such as Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, Maude concluded. In all these countries, allocation and oversight of public expenditure is separated from the principal financial and economic ministry, he said.

International examples for reform plan

The report highlighted a number of other international examples for civil service reform. Maude’s terms of reference tasked him with examining international best practice on accountability and decision-making.

Setting out his reform plans, Maude said that ministers from countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada are “bemused when they hear that the official head of a UK minister’s office can only ever be a career Whitehall civil servant, and that anyone in the minister’s office deemed to be a political appointment… is unable to direct civil servants on behalf of the minister”.

Maude also said that another of his proposed reforms – ministers publishing an annual statement of their objectives, and the accompanying department’s permanent secretary publishing an implementation statement as part of revised outcome delivery plans – would aim to achieve the same purpose as the  “commission letter” from the prime minister to the newly appointed minister setting out what is expected.

Maude’s report was published on the day the UK government’s ministerial posts were reshuffled by prime minister Rishi Sunak. Among the major appointments, former prime minister David Cameron has been named as foreign secretary, replacing James Cleverly, who has been named home secretary following Suella Braverman’s sacking by Sunak following a series of controversial comments.

Government rejects key recommendations

Publishing the report, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin said Maude’s proposals were “a welcome contribution and we will now consider the recommendations carefully and respond in due course”.

However, Quin – who was later moved from his post in a government reshuffle – said that some of Maude’s long-term recommendations would detract focus on other parts of government delivery.

“For example, we will not take forward the recommendation for a significant restructure of the machinery of central Government or alter the role of cabinet secretary,” he said.

UK civil service chief operating officer to depart

Separately, it has been announced that Alex Chisholm, the UK civil service chief operating officer and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, is to leave the role when his four-year contract expires next year.

According to reports, Chisholm will leave the civil service next spring, and an open competition will be held for his successor.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *