UK Politics

Ministers 'need final say on permanent secretaries'

Whitehall sign
Image caption Political influence over senior Whitehall appointments is opaque, a report suggests

Cabinet ministers should have the final say over who is appointed to run their departments to ensure they work better together, a report suggests.

The Institute for Government said allowing ministers to choose a permanent secretary from a shortlist would make the system more transparent and effective.

It would also mean they could no longer "blame" staff for their own mistakes.

And more officials should come from outside Whitehall, the IfG said.

The charity's report recommended that when choosing candidates to become permanent secretaries - the top officials within departments - there should be "a more rigorous independent assessment process that presents a shortlist of candidates to the secretary of state to choose from".

'Called to account'

Critics of such a system, like that already in place in New Zealand, argue that it would "politicise" the civil service, which is meant to be independent.

But Akash Paun, a fellow of the IfG, said: "So long as there is a rigorous merit-based assessment preceding the exercise of ministerial choice, and appointed candidates are bound by the existing civil service code and values, then there would not be an increased risk of politicisation, but a system that is more accountable and more closely reflects the reality."

He added: "If ministers had to take the final selection decision themselves then they could be called to account for their choices - and would find it harder to blame the staff should their pet policy projects run into trouble down the line."

The report found that ministerial influence over appointments was currently exercised through often "opaque and undocumented channels".

Selection panels were already "known to take active steps to avoid the possibility" of the prime minister exercising his right to veto an appointment.

Looking more widely at recruitment, the IfG found "managed moves" remained common, with vacancies being filled by a serving official from elsewhere in Whitehall, without any formal competition at all.

One senior Whitehall figure admitted that managed moves were sometimes used "more in desperation than long-term planning", the report said.

Another described jobs as going to the next person in the "taxi rank of director-generals awaiting promotion".

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The relationship between ministers and their permanent secretary is the most important in any department.

"That's why we are determined to strengthen the role of ministers in permanent secretary appointments. We welcome this specific recommendation by the Institute for Government."