Coffee House

Top civil service appointments in desperate need of reform, says former Environment Secretary

12 December 2012

Civil Service Commission chief Sir David Normington this week rejected plans to allow ministers to pick their own permanent secretaries. It will be a great disappointment to Francis Maude, who argued involving ministers in the appointment process would increase the accountability of the most senior civil servants in a department.

I’ve had a chat with one former Secretary of State who agrees with Maude that the selection process is in desperate need of an overhaul: Caroline Spelman. The former Environment Secretary has kept her head down since she lost her job in September’s reshuffle, but she’s emerged to speak to Coffee House on this key issue of civil service reform. As someone who has led a department recently but is no longer bound by ministerial secrecy, Spelman offers a rare insight into the working relationship between ministers and senior civil servants. She says she still met the candidate for her permanent secretary, but it wasn’t formalised as an interview. Spelman therefore wasn’t allowed to ask any questions:

‘You can’t interview the shortlist of candidates, and you ought to be able to. The whole system is in need of an overhaul. It should be a normal two-way interview process. I don’t dispute that we got a good person for the job, but we should formalise that process which allows cabinet ministers to meet the shortlist.I just think we have to stop beating around the bush: it is a de facto interview anyway, so let’s call it an interview.’

She also objects to the ease with which public officials can hop from department to department, leaving positions unfilled and hindering a department’s process in implementing policy:

‘It is not good that civil servants can move very quickly to a job in another department. it’s very hard on the department that sponsors that move. It could take months and months to fill the post they left, and we often don’t have time to prepare a successor, leaving the department vulnerable. We had a very good interim secretary but it was several months before we filled the position officially. That needs to be addressed.’

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  • telemachus


  • anyfool

    All top tiers of the Civil Service should be open to the private sector for the simple reason they have stopped delivering, Ministers have to take responsibility for some of the half witted actions by these fools, responsibility cuts both ways you cannot be responsible for something to which you have had no input into.
    They have become overtly politicised and serially incompetent, time for drastic action.

  • TomTom

    Can the Public please pick Secretaries of State ? I think Caroline Spelman should counsel Maria Miller and Francis Maude in Cameron’s Wisteria Grove alongside George Osborne’s housing loans

    • Chris lancashire

      Or even Prime Ministers. We never got the chance to vote for or against G Brown. Well, only after he’d had the job for a couple of years. Then look what happened.

      • TomTom

        Then again noone voted for Churchill in 1940 he was imposed just like Chamberlain in 1937……

        • Chris lancashire

          Yep, then look what happened.

  • McRobbie

    There is no doubt in my mind that the way civil servants are allowed to move between jobs is a major weakness, not only the loss in experience in every move but also in the ability to dodge the bullets by getting out of the result of their failures in time. I saw in Scotland the amateur way the parliament building was managed at CS level. Inexperienced people were brought in at varius time, none of whom had the slightest qualification for overseeing a big project… result: an estimated £40 million build became £400 million and boy did the ministers involved and the CS’s get some jollies around the world to view “good practice”.

  • Stiffit

    Caroline Spelman told Coffee House the system for appointing permanent secretaries was in desperate need of overhaul.

    Not half as much in need of reform as a system that could appoint Caroline Spelman.

    • dorothy wilson

      But Caroline Spelman could be sacked and indeed could lose her seat. When was the last time a senior civil servant was sacked – no matter how incompetent?

      • TomTom

        Quite often – think of Transport and West Coast Main line. When was Caroline Spelman considered competent ?

        • telemachus

          And is responsible for the Ash Tree debacle

          Despite a promise to ringfence science spending, Defra research into tree health fell 17.4 percent under Caroline Spelman.

          • Chris lancashire

            Yep, spot on. She single handed flew to Denmark, collected the virus and then scattered it over southern England. And Defra research fell exactly 17.4 percent did it? In that case you can furnish us with the cash figures?

            • telemachus

              Fungus not virus

              • Chris lancashire

                Still waiting for those cash figures old boy.

        • Chris lancashire

          I think you’ll find the two officials involved in the West Coast fiasco have now been reinstated. Spelman remains sacked. Once again, no civil servant is found responsible, no civil servant is sacked.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    All very laudible but did anyone seriously think that that well known and very privileged trade union the 1st Division was going to give up its closed shop?

    No the 1st Divsion will need to be dragged screaming into the 21st Century. It will be bloody (probably moreso than the Police Commissioners) but it is very necessary.

  • Daniel Maris

    Ministers should have nothing to do with civil service appointments. End of story.

    • acorn

      Absolutely right, otherwise they become part of a political administration.

      Essential: A permanent secretary, please, who is pro-Conservative, pro-Europe, anti-Press, rich, two-propertied, gaily married in the Anglican church and who will enjoy being whipped into shape. Desirable: experience of methods of fiddling expenses although it is recognised that most candidates would have been sacked for this despite the ‘oversight/mistake’ rules applied to MPs.

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