Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Civil service 'unfit for purpose'

The cast of Yes Minister
The civil service must recruit more widely, the report says

Giving ministers power to personally appoint senior civil servants would make officials more accountable and effective, a think tank has argued.

Reform said the civil service was "not fit for purpose" at the moment and its deficiencies harmed delivery of policy.

Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne said accountability must be "sharpened" but warned about politicising advice given.

But the body which regulates recruitment to the civil service said political impartiality was a necessity.

Political views

First Civil Service Commissioner Janet Paraskeva said the civil service needed more "expertise from outside" and that recruitment had to be open and rigorous to ensure people given jobs were the "best in class".

She said successful applicants had to leave their personal political views behind "at the door" when joining.

"Political impartiality is absolutely vital to the civil service," she told the Commons Public Administration Committee, adding that the principle had "stood the test of time".


There has to be greater personal accountability for performance

Liam Byrne, Cabinet Office minister

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Byrne said there were "big debates" to be had about whether ministers should have direct authority over appointing top officials.

"There has to be greater personal accountability for performance," he acknowledged.

But he added: "Obviously there are questions to ensure how we safeguard against politicisation of the civil service, which is a constitutional principle that has to be preserved."

Reform's report said root-and-branch changes to the structure and culture of the civil service were needed.

There was little accountability at all levels of the civil service, it warned, while innovation and new thinking were not rewarded.

Among its recommendations, it says the prime minister should be allowed to appoint the senior civil servant in each department after consultation with ministers, as now happens in Australia.

In addition, ministers should be able to draw on advice from outside the civil service by bringing in their own private secretaries and special advisers.

Accountability and responsibility

Also the current doctrine of ministerial responsibility for policy should be abolished to make officials directly responsible for how decisions are formulated and for failures in implementing them.

Reform says the civil service has already become politicised, with ministers influencing appointments and officials being party to essentially political decisions.

Direct ministerial appointment of officials, reinforced by enhanced scrutiny of civil servants by Parliamentary committees, would make the system more "transparent and honest".

Recruitment at all levels of the civil service must be "opened up", it added, with all jobs advertised externally.

Ministers have announced reviews into how the performance of civil servants is managed, how they can provide better value for money and deliver policies more effectively.

Former trade minister Lord Jones caused a stir recently when he said the civil service could get by with half its current staff and many officials "deserved the sack".

Mr Byrne said progress had been made in making the civil service more responsive and diverse but much more needed to be done.

"There has to be further progress towards creating a truly meritocratic civil service," he said.

Vacancies advertised only to existing civil servants should be "the exception rather than the rule", he stressed.

According to official figures, of the top 600 posts most recently vacated, 100 were advertised externally and 40% of these were ultimately filled by existing civil servants.

Mr Byrne said the culture of the service must also change with a "much greater premium on innovation at every single level of the organisation" and more emphasis on "delivery skills".

'Too timid'

Some MPs have expressed concern that ministers are riding roughshod over their civil servants.

Labour MP Paul Flynn said there was a "culture of timidity and passivity" in the civil service, where officials had their "mouths bandaged and their minds switched off".

Ms Paraskeva rejected this, saying there was no evidence of an "endemic" culture of fear among civil servants.

She said senior officials were not a "pushover" and challenged ministers with advice which often went against their outlook.

She added that she was "disappointed" by Lord Jones' comments about the ability of civil servants.


A selection of your comments about the issue.

Brilliant. After politicising the police, the CPS, the ONS, the BBC, the judiciary, the House of Lords, the Speaker, the Lord Chancellor, the NHS, hundreds of quangos and practically everything else that provides an independent bulwark against an inefficient and frankly mendacious and incompetent government, they now plan to reward even more of their cronies with well-paid jobs at the highest levels in the civil service.

John, Sussex

What politicians are really looking for here is yet more "arms length" government. They are looking to have a buffer of ministerial appointments between themselves and the need to deliver policies. In this way, failure to deliver can always be blamed on the civil service and ministers can stand above it all and never have to take responsibility.

Ian, Bath

Having worked for the civil service as a contractor for a few years, I can say that even some low level government employees would have either never have been given the job or would have been binned if they had worked for private industry.

Ian, Huyton

I agree with Lord Jones. The civil service is overmanned and overpaid. An easy life.

Jack, London.

We are likely to see inappropriate leaders in the civil service on the basis that they are a friend of a minister, not on the basis that they have got the job on merit.

Mark, Liverpool.



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