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PASC warns new arrangements could lead to "weaker leadership"

20 January 2012

The House of Commons Public Administration Committee (PASC) warns today that the new arrangements implemented at the top of the Civil Service on the retirement of Sir Gus O’Donnell "could lead to weaker leadership and disperse power at a critical time of change in government" and that they will not succeed unless ministers, and particularly the Prime Minister, accords the two roles equal power and status

They must both attend Cabinet on equal terms and both must have access to the Prime Minister and the authority "to speak truth unto power".

The risk of unequal status and differential access to the Prime Minister under the new arrangements has prompted the Committee to demand a full review of the new structure by July 2012.

The introduction to the report, Leadership of Change: New arrangements for the role of the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary states :

"The Civil Service is one of the United Kingdom’s great institutions. It is not merely the administrative function of government: it is one of the vital checks and balances in the UK’s largely unwritten constitution. Its impartiality and objectivity are supposed to be its hallmark. Senior civil servants are responsible for advising Ministers on appropriate procedures and legal and ethical practices. They must be independent enough to speak truth to power…."

PASC identified "Leadership" as one of six key principles of good governance and change management in a report last year and now says that changes to the top structure of the Civil Service "raise fundamental question about the leadership of the Civil Service" upon which the whole government change programme depends. The report includes emphatic evidence from all four former surviving Cabinet Secretaries expressing deep reservations about splitting the role of the Cabinet Secretary. The risk is that the Cabinet Secretary will be "top dog", and the Head of the Civil service will be relegated to a subservient role rendering him ineffective. PASC reports that the government is "on notice that this new arrangement may not be sustainable."

Key findings

The report makes public for the first time an organisation chart of the new arrangements, with tables setting out how reporting lines and responsibilities have been divided. The key findings of the report are:

  • PASC doubts whether the new Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, will be able to fulfil all the duties set out in his lengthy job description in the two days per week allocated to the post, while also acting as Permanent Secretary in a major department of state
  • as Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob must have the seniority and the ear of the Prime Minister in order to fulfil his role and parity of status with the Cabinet Secretary; he must attend Cabinet regularly on the same basis as the Cabinet Secretary
  • PASC recommends a full-time Head of the Civil Service who should also be Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, overseeing a stronger centre of government able to implement change across Whitehall
  • the Government should conduct a full of review these changes in July 2012 in the light of six months of experience, to consider whether a full-time Head of the Civil Service is required to provide the Civil Service with the necessary organisational leadership
  • one risk of the new arrangement is that divided reporting lines will lead to divided and weak leadership: an arrangement which relies too much for its effectiveness on the personal chemistry between the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service  is inherently unstable
  • PASC reiterates its recommendation, hitherto rejected by the Government, that the Government’s change programme demands a stronger centre of government to drive change

Comment from the Chair

Chair of PASC, Bernard Jenkin MP, said:

"A prime minister is entitled to reorganise the top of the Civil Service as he thinks best suits the nature of his administration and the challenges it faces, but civil servants are not merely servants of ministers. There must be no impression that the most senior civil servants are becoming political courtiers. They play a vital role in our national life. Nor is this the time to divide or dilute Civil Service leadership. The Head of the Civil Service cannot be reduced to cutting ribbons at job centres on Friday afternoons.
The government has to rely on its 440,000 staff to deliver its radical reform programme and savings programme. The top of the Civil Service must lead a comprehensive change programme to tackle the tens of billions wasted every year and to equip Whitehall with the skills to implement change and to manage resources, contracts and major projects much more effectively. It needs to tackle endemic barriers to cross departmental working, the risk averse culture that escalates costs, and the general lack of engagement of staff down the command chain."

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