Government plan puts Civil Service impartiality at risk

Cabinet Office minister provokes fears of politicisation with proposals to appoint senior mandarins on fixed-term contracts

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Indy Politics

When the Government published its plan to reform the Civil Service six weeks ago, many concluded that the document represented a victory for the real-life Sir Humphrey Appleby and the power of Britain's permanent bureaucracy.

Far from the radical reform that had been championed by some ministers (and in particular by David Cameron's outgoing director of strategy, Steve Hilton), the plan that was published appeared jargonistic, woolly and unlikely to alter the relationship between ministers and their senior departmental officials.

In particular it failed to answer the conundrum: how to end the all-too-real parody of government portrayed by Yes, Minister and ensure that civil servants are truly accountable and responsive to their political masters.

But in a twist worthy of the TV comedy, the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, may just have had the last laugh. He intends to commission a think tank to come up with specific policy recommendations to reform the British Civil Service. In particular Mr Maude is understood to be interested in models of civil service accountability used in New Zealand.

There, permanent secretaries are appointed by ministers on fixed-term, results-based contracts and can be dismissed if they don't reach targets set by their political masters. In addition most policy advisers, private secretaries and press officers are appointed by the ministers for whom they work.

Although most come from the permanent civil service, they are seconded on "event-based" contacts – which terminate when the minister loses his or her job.

This, it is argued, makes them much more accountable to their political masters and less likely to prevaricate and delay policies with which they do not agree in the hope that the political wind will change.

The research will also examine the Australian system, which gives a far bigger role to political advisers – up to 11 per cabinet minister – and has a convention by which the most senior civil servants automatically tender their resignation on the election of a new government.

This has led to concerns that the Australian civil service has been overly politicised, but supporters argue that it actually increases democratic accountability.

Significantly the review will also examine the American system, where most senior officials are appointed direct by each presidential administration and can be dismissed at any time.

The timescale of the new review, to be announced today, suggests that Mr Maude is intent on acting swiftly.

Those interested in bidding to do the research will have less than a month to put in their proposals, and the winning bid will have just two months to pull together its report.

While the Government insists it has an open mind, it is clear there is significant momentum towards change. "There is a tendency to see politics as a dirty word," one source said. "But politicians are democratically elected with a mandate from the electorate. It is hard to argue that making civil servants more accountable to ministers is somehow anti-democratic."

Announcing the review, Mr Maude said: "We shouldn't hubristically assume that there's nothing we can learn from other successful governments.

"We are already implementing the reform plan we published, but we are also developing new ideas to form our next steps."

A spokeswoman for the Institute of Government said the think tank would not be bidding for the project, but it was an area of research it was already looking at.

"We don't believe there is simple juxtaposition between impartial bureaucrats and an administration appointed by ministers," she said.

"There are several layers in between. The real question is how they are held to account."

Sir Humphrey beaten? Hilton's last laugh

Today's announcement will be seen as a victory for David Cameron's combative former director of strategy Steve Hilton.

Before he left Government earlier this year he stormed out of a meeting with the head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, swearing in frustration at what he saw as Whitehall attempts to water down radical civil service reform.

When, a few weeks later, the Government published its Civil Service Reform Plan many concluded that it represented an easy win for Sir Bob and the status quo.

But in a twist, worthy of the comedy Yes Minister, Mr Hilton and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude may just have had the last laugh over Sir Humphrey.

Oliver Wright