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Accountability and responsiveness in the senior civil service

democracy, leadership, reform, Whitehall

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Author(s):  IPPR
Published date:  17 Jun 2013
This publication is no longer available via IPPR.org

IPPR's report for the Cabinet Office, based on research into the civil services of overseas countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, recommends reforms to the appointment and accountability of senior officials, including permanent secretaries.


Download this report from the Cabinet Office


Reception for the report

'We are rightly proud of so much that our Civil Service does. But it would be arrogant to assume that there is nothing we can learn from how other countries do things. That is why we asked the respected think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, to examine how other civil services work. I welcome this report which makes an important contribution to the debate. We will consider it carefully as we formulate the next steps of our reform programme for the Civil Service.I am pleased the IPPR’s recommendations are evolutionary and go with the grain of our Westminster system. The government will be updating Parliament in due course with the next steps for the Civil Service Reform programme."

– Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office

'The IPPR report is significant precisely because it shows how it is possible to strengthen the accountability of senior civil servants to Ministers and to Parliament without politicising Whitehall. A more accountable civil service will make for more effective government. These are sensible measures that should command cross-party support, which is essential if we're to see civil service reform implemented. I welcome this important contribution.'

– Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee

'[The debate about the civil service has] recently become fraught with many permanent secretaries feeling bruised, unsupported and uncertain about their role, while some ministers have been frustrated by official attitudes. It is an unhealthy situation which has made many senior officials ultra-sensitive about proposals for change. The IPPR report should now permit a more reasoned debate, setting out in detail the experience from overseas and allaying some of the fears over politicisation.'

– Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government

'Today, the IPPR publishes a report with recommendations that would be an important step towards improving the effectiveness and accountability of government.'

– Nick Herbert MP

'The IPPR report is a hugely valuable contribution to the current debate about civil service reform. The recommendations are based on painstaking international research, with a particular focus on countries that have systems of government similar to ours in the UK. The result is a manifesto for change that goes with the grain of tradition and practice in the UK civil service but at the same time recognises the need for reform in response to the challenges facing government in the 21st century.'

– Alan Downey, partner and head of public sector at KPMG

'This is a most worthwhile, and clear, analysis of how the UK and other governments are facing similar demands, both for transparency and accountability of ministers and senior civil servants, and on how to safeguard the impartiality of the latter whilst enabling politicians to drive through their agenda. It gives lots of food for thought, including on how the civil service could also help the Opposition, and we will reflect on it as we develop our own proposals for civil service reform.'

Baroness Hayter, Lords Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Content of the report

IPPR's report argues for strengthening the role of politicians in the appointment process: since ministers are held largely accountable for the performance of their departments it is only right that they should have a stronger say in the most important recruitment decision in their departments. The prime minister is best placed to make the most important personnel decisions, from a list drawn up on merit by the Civil Service Commission.

The report also recognises the need to give ministers more direct support so they can perform their roles more effectively. It recommends that the number of staff directly appointed to work for secretaries of state (and ministers who run departments) should be significantly increased, and that all appointments – officials, non-partisan expert advisers and political advisers – should be made by the minister.

The report makes six recommendations for reform:

  1. Giving the prime minister the power to appoint permanent secretaries without politicising the civil service
  2. Providing secretaries of state and ministers who run their own departments with an extended office of ministerial staff that they personally appoint and who work directly on their behalf in the department
  3. Strengthening the role of the head of the civil service to hold permanent secretaries to account
  4. Introducing fixed-term, four-year contracts for new permanent secretaries
  5. Strengthening the external accountability of senior civil servants in key operational roles
  6. Enabling the civil service to better support opposition parties by allowing officials to be seconded into opposition parties to help them with policy development

IPPR studied the civil service in the following countries: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Sweden, France, United States, Canada and the European Union. IPPR’s research was independently conducted, and was commissioned by the Cabinet Office following a successful competitive bid by IPPR to the Contestability Fund. It is the first research to be commissioned and published in this way by the government.

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