26 March 2013

The Westminster tradition is that Ministers take the kudos for achievements and the responsibility for poor performance.  Civil servants remain in the background, supporting their Minister.

In New Zealand there has been a much greater focus on the accountability of departmental chief executives. Where performance issues have occurred, inferences can be drawn if, subsequently, the chief executive’s contract has not been renewed. Ministers don’t seem to have bought into the tradition that they should carry the can.

And that may be the way things are heading in the Britain also.  Last week the UK Public Accounts Committee was very critical of the HM Revenue and Customs chief executive, indicating that it had little confidence in her abilities following a “catastrophic leadership failure” in her previous position as chief executive of the UK Border Agency. The Guardian described its comments as one of the most severe attacks by a Commons committee on a named civil servant. The committee was so astounded when the chief executive was promoted from the UK Border Agency to HM Revenue and Customs, that it demanded that Parliament should be given a veto in future, over leading civil service appointments. “The status quo, in which catastrophic leadership failure is no obstacle to promotion, is totally unacceptable… any failures of this nature should have serious consequences for the individual’s career.”

At the same time the Civil Service Department was telling the Commons Select Committee on Public Administration that there was a need for change in the civil service; that it must work differently,  be faster, smaller, more open and less bureaucratic, with improved capability, sharpened accountability, and strengthened professionalism. The attack by the Public Accounts Committee on the HM Revenue and Customs chief executive may also be why the Civil Service said that it would be arrogant to assume there was nothing it could learn from abroad.