The Prime Minister must ensure that he gets a chief executive at the centre

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell argues the idea of appointing a full-time chief executive to lead the Civil Service is correct – provided the responsibilities and authority match the role. There are worrying signs in this month’s announcement that they will not, and we may have the second muddled reorganisation in three years.

There was an inevitability about yesterday’s announcement of Sir Bob Kerslake’s imminent departure as Head of the Civil Service, while remaining as Permanent Secretary at Department for Communities and Local Government until the end of next February. With an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased. The political line was about a renewed drive on civil service reform; absolutely right, but it would be wrong to ignore the huge scale of changes since 2010 and the impetus for reform among most senior civil servants themselves.

The real problems in the civil service leadership are structural. It was right in January 2012 to split the functions of Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service Head since no one could perform both roles. However, it was a mistake for Sir Bob to double-hat as Head of the Civil Service and a departmental Permanent Secretary. That created impossible pressures on him, and, in this position, he never had the powers or authority to lead the changes expected of him.

However, yesterday’s announcement confuses as much as it clarifies. Sir Jeremy Heywood will take the title of Head of the Civil Service while maintaining his current responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary. That makes it clear who is in charge and who reports to the Prime Minister, and this we welcome. The problem is that the new chief executive, who will report to the Cabinet Secretary, is not really going to be a CEO of the Civil Service, but, rather, someone who is in charge of civil service transformation, efficiency and reform plus taking over responsibility for running the Cabinet Office. The inclusion of the latter muddles the tasks of running the headquarters operation with oversight of the whole civil service.

A real CEO of the Civil Service needs real powers, such as being in charge of the appraisals for permanent secretaries, having a clear role in the recruitment and promotion of top civil servants, and overseeing those running the civil service professions. If these roles are not to be undertaken by the new chief executive, they will both undermine his or her effectiveness – and authority among other permanent secretaries – while adding substantially to Sir Jeremy’s already heavy workload.

There is still time to reflect on these issues and to sort them out. After yesterday’s announcement, there is no need to rush decisions since there is to be a recruitment process overseen by the First Civil Service Commissioner. The Prime Minister says he wants to create a new chief executive post at the centre of government. He now needs to ensure that this is what he gets, rather than another botched role whose holder lacks the necessary authority and powers. At stake is the ability of the Civil Service to deliver reform, be accountable and meet the big challenges of the next parliament.

This post originally appeared on the Institute for Government blog.

Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government.

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