December 16, 2010 1:39 am

Mandarins risk dismissal, Maude warns

Business leaders will have the power to sack underperforming permanent secretaries as part of Francis Maude’s attempts to inject business acumen into Whitehall through beefed-up departmental boards.

The cabinet secretary, who will unveil his first tranche of non-executives on Thursday, said those sitting on the boards would use their experience to help departments “meet the government’s challenging reform programme”.

“We are making it quite explicit that, where permanent secretaries fail to properly implement government programmes, non-executives will be able to ask the PM for their dismissal,” said Mr Maude.

The reforms will see four new non-executives join each government department – incumbents are required to reapply for their posts – to monitor departmental performance.

But Lord Browne, the former BP executive leading the process, has so far only managed to secure half of his 64 appointments as he grapples with the complexity of marrying the competing demands of business leaders and officials.

“It has been very complicated, it is like putting together 16 boards,” said Lord Browne. “Change is always very difficult, there is resistance as well as acceptance as you go along.”

Mr Maude defended his incomplete list, which will be published on Thursday after weeks of delays, and said he hoped to be in a position to announce the remaining appointments by mid-January. However, he conceded that at times it had been an uphill struggle to get mandarins to buy into his flagship plan.

“It would not be particularly surprising if some parts of the system aren’t enthusiastic about having serious scrutiny and challenge, but the best [departments] have been enthusiastic,” he said.

Mr Maude has only been able to secure lead directors in 11 of the 16 departments. Health, work and pensions, defence, and energy and climate change are departments yet to secure even one non-executive.

He hopes the appointees will help the government save money by taking on much of the work once done by “incontinently used” consultants.

Each non-executive will be paid between £15,000 ($23,300) and £20,000, although most are expected to waive the fee.

“Challenging, highly experienced business leaders can deliver very quickly and effectively,” said Mr Maude. “[Consultants] have been far too incontinently used in the past and it has been very debilitating for mainstream civil servants who have felt very undervalued.”

Concerns have been raised in Whitehall over the process to appoint the non-executive directors and the roles being carved out for them.

Some senior figures have pointed out that the appointments threaten to undermine the independence of the civil service as government parachutes people on to boards.

Lead non-executives include Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, who will sit on the business board, and Sara Weller, chief executive of Argos, who will head up the team for local government. Iain Ferguson, former chief executive of Tate & Lyle, will be the lead director in the environment, food and rural affairs department, with Baroness Hogg taking up the lead position in the Treasury.

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