10 July 2013

On this anniversary of decimal currency being introduced into New Zealand in 1967,  in Britain a new party-political currency is to be introduced into the governance arrangements for Ministers’ Offices.

The statement from the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to mark the first anniversary of his Civil Service Reform plan seems to have been made available to the Guardian ahead of others in the media.  The substance is that Ministers’ Offices are to be set up along the lines of those in Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent, New Zealand.  Ministers’ Offices will largely lose their traditional Civil Service character.  Any appearance of impartiality will be dropped and a politically appointed chief of staff will control the Minister’s fixed-term special advisers.

These changes reflect recommendations by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Institute of Government which looked internationally for systems to enhance the effectiveness of Ministers’ Offices as part of increasing government accountability.

The majority of the increased staffing in Ministers’ Offices will still be civil servants but like the special advisers, will be personally appointed by Ministers – through the openly political chief of staff.  Mr Maude believes that arrangements which provide Ministers with a team committed to the Ministers’ objectives can be implemented without legislative reform or changes to the Civil Service code – which already exempts special advisers from neutrality obligations.

Interestingly the report is that there will be no new money to fund the increased resources – and ironically there appears to be not only cross party support but endorsement from the vocally independent Public Accounts Committee chair.

While there seems to be general endorsement by politicians, the union for senior Civil Servants is concerned about politicising Ministers’ Offices – “this … is likely to mean Ministers hear what they want to hear, but not what they need to hear. The destabilising effect of this approach should not be underestimated – the last thing anyone needs is further turmoil through the ranks of the Civil Service every time there is a reshuffle or election.”