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UK Politics

Ministers should be given annual performance appraisals, says former head of civil service


Ministers should be given annual performance appraisals to see how well they are doing their jobs, a former head of the civil service said today.

Ex-Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell acknowledged that ministers would be "nervous" about the appraisals - featuring written judgments on their effectiveness from civil servants, whips and fellow ministers - becoming public knowledge through Freedom of Information requests.

But he said that regular feedback would improve the standard of governance and give prime ministers a better idea of which members of their team are falling short, and which are "going off on their own" with a private agenda that does not chime with the government's strategic objectives.

"In the world of freedom of information, people would say 'Oh yes, let's see what so-and-so's views on X are"' he said. "In the political world, people would be very nervous about have appraisals out there in public."

But he said that appraisals were a normal part of the modern workplace and would be "positive" for politics too.

"Obviously, you are in a media environment where people would love to have these things," he told the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. "But sometimes you just have to go through with it."

Lord O'Donnell, who served as Cabinet Secretary from 2005-11, also suggested that MPs - including members of the opposition - should be given training in how to be a minister, so they know what to do when they are appointed.

Elder statesmen, including retired prime ministers and secretaries of state, could take part in courses to give them tips on skills they will need as a minister, such as leadership, strategy and team-building, he said.

After the kind of shift in power seen in elections like 1997 or 2010, a new administration may include virtually no-one with experience of office, said Lord O'Donnell, adding: "If you were to take a company and take out the whole leadership and put people in who had never actually had that sort of job ever before, you would expect the company to go broke."

And he said: "At the moment, ministers are stuck with reading a couple of books."

Lord O'Donnell revealed that he pleaded with David Cameron before he became Prime Minister to allow ministers to stay in post for longer, after the "hypermobility" of the Blair and Brown years when Cabinets were regularly reshuffled.

Mr Cameron has "delivered" on that as PM, in part because the constraints of coalition Government mean he does not have a free hand in picking his team, he said.

Some ministers who "probably would have been sacked" by previous PMs have kept their jobs in the Cameron administration, said Lord O'Donnell, adding that this has been "very beneficial" for the performance of the Government as a whole.

Secretaries of state should keep their jobs for a full Parliament and junior ministers for at least two years, so they are not moved on before really getting to grips with their brief, he told the committee, which is investigating Cabinet reshuffles.

"As a basic principle, it's a very good idea to have a longer tenure for ministers in post, particularly for secretaries of state," said Lord O'Donnell.

"I mentioned this to David Cameron when we had one of our discussions when he was leader of the opposition. He said 'What can I do for you?' and I said 'Keep ministers in place for longer. That would be my number one ask.' He has delivered on that. That's partly, I think, because he agrees it's a sensible thing to do and partly because coalition has an impact on that."

Lord O'Donnell was critical of Mr Cameron's tendency of allowing ministers - like Kenneth Clarke or Baroness Warsi - to carry on attending Cabinet after being demoted from top-ranking jobs, describing it as "not an ideal situation".