June 17, 2013 12:05 am

Whitehall reform blueprint likely to stoke tensions

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Far-reaching changes in the relationship between ministers and their officials are foreshadowed on Monday in a report widely seen as a blueprint for the reform of Whitehall.

The government-commissioned report into the civil service, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, is likely to fuel tensions between Westminster and Whitehall. Recommendations from the paper include handing the prime minister responsibility for choosing permanent secretaries and allowing ministers to appoint bigger personal teams to drive policy implementation in their departments.

Francis Maude, cabinet office minister, moved quickly to make clear that the government had no immediate plans to embrace the think-tank’s proposal on permanent secretary appointments .

However, he is known to favour the idea of expanded private offices for ministers. Another proposal, that permanent secretaries should serve fixed terms that are renewable on the basis of performance, is also likely to be supported, the Financial Times understands, when ministers make a further announcement in July.

Mr Maude praised the IPPR’s recommendations as going “with the grain of our Westminster system”. The report was also welcomed by Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary, and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service.

In some parts of Whitehall, however, there was surprise that what began as an exercise in comparing different civil service models around the world is now being treated as something closer to a prescription for the next steps in civil service reform.

At the heart of government frustrations is a belief that the Whitehall machine has become unresponsive to ministerial demands with potentially acute consequences for an administration seeking to deliver the biggest reform programme since the second world war. Mr Maude has spoken of the civil service’s “bias to inertia”. Some senior officials, for their part, privately argue that the Northcote-Trevelyan model of a politically impartial civil service is facing its biggest threat.

The IPPR acknowledged that dissonance, saying the debate had “become intensely polarised in a deeply unhelpful way”.

International evidence, however, showed it was “perfectly possible to have a more responsive and ‘personalised’ system without compromising the independence of the civil service”.

The suggestion that ministers should directly control bigger teams – a mixture of officials, outside expert advisers and political appointees – is likely to prove controversial but the IPPR says that, “in comparative terms, the UK is highly restrictive in terms of the level of support given to ministers directly to enable them to carry out their functions effectively”.

[The recommendations] build on – and pose no risk to – the core traditions of the UK civil service. They sit well with Whitehall practice, and could be easily implemented

- Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR

The IPPR argues that senior Whitehall officials in charge of delivering big initiatives should be made directly accountable to parliament. The convention at present is that civil servants are accountable to ministers and ministers accountable to parliament.

Senior officials will resist any move they perceive as diluting civil service neutrality. However, they share ministers’ belief that traditional Whitehall “silos” must be tackled in an era when initiatives that cut across departments are important to make better use of public money.

Under the IPPR’s proposals, the head of the civil service would be given stronger powers to hold permanent secretaries to account and their contracts would emphasise cross-departmental collaboration, as happens in New Zealand.

Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR, said: “Our recommendations represent measured and incremental changes to the way Whitehall currently works. They would strengthen the accountability of senior officials and improve ministerial confidence in the civil service. Crucially they build on – and pose no risk to – the core traditions of the UK civil service. They sit well with current Whitehall practice, and could be easily implemented.”

Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, said the debate had “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 report “should now permit a more reasoned debate, setting out in detail the experience from overseas and allaying some of the fears over politicisation”, he added.

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