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
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Life and Style
Sony Computer Entertainment President and Group CEO Andrew House, executive in charge of Sony Network Entertainment, introduces PlayStation Now
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?