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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee