Radical plans to make top mandarins 'chief executives'

Civil servants seen as 'untouchable and unaccountable' could also be put on four-year contracts

Top civil servants would be forced to leave their posts after four years under plans being drawn up in Government, threatening an all-out war between ministers and the Civil Service, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Permanent secretaries would serve fixed terms of four years and could even be renamed chief executives of their departments in a major shake-up of Whitehall that is being pushed by ministers.

Some cabinet ministers are becoming impatient with their civil servants, claiming the service is crippled by "inertia" and inhibiting the Government's policy delivery. But mandarins are resisting a radical shake-up, warning that fixed terms would compromise the impartiality of the Civil Service and force highly skilled individuals to leave for the private sector.

Tensions have been growing between civil servants and ministers since the coalition took over from Labour three years ago. Michael Gove, Theresa May and Philip Hammond are among cabinet ministers said to be pushing for drastic reform, while Steve Hilton, David Cameron's policy chief, left Downing Street after becoming exasperated with civil servants blocking his radical ideas.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the Civil Service, is known to believe that the current system of accountability is not working effectively. He has commissioned the IPPR, a centre-left think tank, to report on how other Westminster-style governments, such as Canada and New Zealand, operate. Last month, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, likened the Civil Service to a "monastic order".

The FDA, the union that represents senior civil servants, warned yesterday that its members would strongly resist any move for four-year contracts.

The plan was attempted by Tony Blair nearly a decade ago but never implemented by the Civil Service, which is now being used by reformists as evidence that mandarins are prone to "inertia". One government source said: "The old system has broken down. Although there are honourable exceptions – especially among the more recent appointments – too many permanent secretaries see themselves as untouchable and unaccountable. Ending tenure would be one sensible step to addressing this – but Blair thought he had done that a decade ago.

"We need to remind the Civil Service that they are, above all, public servants. The most senior civil servant in each department should be focused on delivering the Government's agenda and should probably be called chief executives. That would sharpen their minds as to what their role was."

According to one insider, a senior official said that ministers should "think why they're called permanent secretaries", noting that ministers were here today, gone tomorrow, whereas the permanent secretary would be there for ever.

Nick Herbert, the Conservative former police minister, is to launch a research project into more radical reform of the machinery of government. He said: "The absurd fiction is that ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their department, including operational matters, while civil servants are essentially unaccountable. The result is that no one is actually accountable for failure. Ending the tenure of permanent secretaries would be a useful step towards sharpened accountability, but real reform means going further, with experienced chief executives who know how to run things and who'll be held responsible for performance."

Since the coalition was formed in 2010, 18 out of the 20 permanent secretaries in charge of departments have changed. Only Sir Nicholas Macpherson at the Treasury and Jonathan Stephens at the DCMS remain in place from the Labour government.

Mr Blair, in his speech on Civil Service reform in February 2004, said: "If we want the Civil Service to be more entrepreneurial, to be more adventurous like their private sector counterparts, we have to loosen up. I know we, like you, have to be held to account. But sometimes we can be so frightened of the process of accountability, we opt for inertia."

In New Zealand, which is being held up as a potential model for reform, the most senior civil servant in a department is called a chief executive, with the focus on delivery of policy during a parliamentary term. Appointments of senior civil servants are decided by an independent State Services Commission, with some consultation of ministers.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said: "We don't actually think the Civil Service is broken. This seems to be an attempt at more ministerial control. Permanent secretaries are already paid thousands less than the going rate in the private sector. If you start messing about with them, they will go somewhere else.

"It just simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. We believe it would deliver bad government. Those FDA members [who are senior civil servants] can sit on their hands and not do it. Permanent secretaries are there to service any minister and any government, and are not associated with a particular government or a particular minister."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions