David Cameron warned of rift with mandarins

 

David Cameron was warned today that he faces a damaging rift with senior civil servants after a minister accused top officials of blocking Government policies they disagree with.

Union leaders reacted furiously after the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude branded the conduct of some permanent secretaries responsible for running Whitehall departments "unacceptable".

Mr Maude, who is responsible for Civil Service reform, promised new measures to hold the mandarins accountable for their actions.

But the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, hit back accusing ministers of trying to "scapegoat" officials for their own policy failures.

The bitter clash appears to reflect frustration within Government ranks that public borrowing is still stubbornly high while the economy remains mired in recession.

In a speech to the Institute for Government in London, Mr Maude said that there had to be a "change of culture" across Whitehall.

"At the moment our system works on the basis that ministers are accountable to Parliament, which is quite right. But what must flow from that is civil servants are directly accountable to ministers. It sounds obvious but all too often it doesn't happen," he said.

"Ministers from this Government, and in previous ones, have too often found that decisions they have made do not then get implemented.

"There are cases when permanent secretaries have blocked agreed Government policy from going ahead or advised other officials not to implement ministerial decisions - that is unacceptable. And such exceptional cases undermine the sterling work of the majority of civil servants.

"Ministers, as the Ministerial Code outlines, should listen to the advice of their officials. Indeed, a minister who neglected to consult his or her officials would be foolhardy.

"Yet once a minister has made up his or her mind and given a decision, the constitutional role of the Civil Service is explicitly clear: it is to implement that decision."

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said his comments risked creating "a severe loss of trust" between ministers and their most senior officials.

"If ministers have concerns about the actions of permanent secretaries, there are established ways of dealing with them. If civil servants have serious concerns about policy initiatives, they have a responsibility to raise those concerns with ministers - that is the role of an impartial civil service," he said.

"Too often ministers seek to scapegoat senior civil servants for the failure of policy. By publicly berating permanent secretaries in this way, the Government risks damaging the key relationships between ministers and their most senior officials.

"No chief executive of a major private company would publicly criticise his most senior managers in this way and not expect morale to plummet.

"Civil servants are working to implement the Government's reform agenda and deficit reduction programme, while maintaining the standard of our public services. This is no way to motivate the most senior leaders to deliver this challenging agenda."

In his speech, Mr Maude said that in future permanent secretaries which would be set objectives which would be published online so their performance could be judged against them.

At the same time, ministers would be given the opportunity to "feed into" the performance appraisals of individual officials.

He said they were also looking at the New Zealand model where there is a contractual relationship between ministers who set policy outcomes and the heads of departments who are responsible for delivering them.

It would be considered as part of a review being carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank looking at how other countries run their bureaucracies.

PA

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