UK Politics

Civil service criticised over 'culture of amateurism'

Image caption Ministers have not ruled out changing the law to enable them to choose their top officials

Giving ministers the power to appoint top civil servants will help to end a culture of amateurism in Whitehall, a centre-right think tank has said.

Reform said it had heard evidence suggesting that government departments deal with "appalling" members of staff by promoting them.

In its report, Reform also criticised the "relentless" rotation of officials.

The government said that its on-going reforms would tackle "long-standing weaknesses" in Whitehall.

Reform, which focuses on public services, said its research was based on anonymous interviews with 45 current and former ministers, special advisers and officials.


One interviewee said they had expected to find a team of experts ready to assist secretaries of state but instead found a department full of "generalists", because civil servants are moved between jobs every two to three years.

The constant rotation of staff and ministers meant that noone was held accountable for success or failure of long-term projects, according to the report.

In December, the Civil Service Commission, an independent body overseeing civil service recruitment, announced it would block the government's plans to give ministers the power to choose their permanent secretaries - the top official in each department.

The commission said ministers should be "fully involved" with the recruitment process but the final decision must rest with a selection panel to "safeguard a non-political civil service".

But Reform said many secretaries of state, including in the coalition government, have effectively ousted permanent secretaries or chosen who they want in the post behind the scenes, even under present rules.

It called for ministers to be formally given the power to chose their department's top official, with both minister and permanent secretary expected to remain in post for the duration of the Parliament.


Andrew Haldenby, director of Reform, said: "The government has belatedly realised that reform of Whitehall is not an optional extra.

"David Cameron can harness a coalition of support in all three major parties and in the civil service itself.

"He needs to care much more about the performance of his ministers and specifically their ability to drive the Whitehall machine."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The government is clear that the civil service needs to change in order to meet rising public expectations and the long-term challenges that all economies face.

"Through the civil service reform programme, we are implementing our vision for a more skilled, less bureaucratic, more unified civil service, which is faster, smaller and does more online.

"Our reform programme is designed to address long-standing weaknesses including poor performance management, the lack of skills in certain areas and high turnover.

"We agree that the relationship between ministers and their permanent secretary is the most important in any department and is central to the issue of accountability.

"That is why we are determined to strengthen the role of ministers in permanent secretary appointments."

The prime minister already has the power to veto the independent selection panel's choice of permanent secretary.

But Labour has warned that further ministerial involvement could put the impartiality of the civil service in "peril".

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