17 June 2013

The Institute for Public Policy has published research commissioned by the UK Cabinet Office Minister, on the accountability and responsiveness of civil servants. Changes proposed reflect practices explored in New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

As in New Zealand, Departmental heads should be engaged for fixed terms (of four years) with performance specific contracts.  Ministers should be able to select their Ministerial special advisers (spads)  as is also the de facto New Zealand practice, and select other officials who will staff their private offices.  The Cabinet Office Minister commented that he felt that it “…  would be arrogant to assume that there is nothing we can learn from how other countries do things…”

Although the Civil Service Commission will appoint Departmental heads,  the Prime Minister will have a veto power.

A substantial increase is proposed in the number of spads – from fewer than 80 to closer to the 600 (as in Australia and Canada) that Ministers believe they need to do their jobs properly.  Ministers would have the freedom to make these appointments on partisan lines.

Despite the likelihood of weakening political neutrality in parts of the civil service, the proposals have the support of the Institute for Government and apparent cross party approval.

Other proposals include supporting opposition party research with seconded civil servants to better facilitate transition to a new government, and empowering select committees to require not only Departmental heads to appear,  but also other officials responsible for major programme implementation.