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Civil Service reforms allow PM to select permanent secretaries from shortlist

From December the prime minister will be able to make permanent secretary appointments from a candidate shortlist prepared by an independent panel, under new rules announced today.

The Civil Service Commission (CSC) currently recommends only one candidate to the PM, who has the right to either accept or reject them.

Under the new arrangements, the panel, to be chaired by Sir David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner, will send the PM an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates judged ‘appointable’, and he will pick the preferred candidate from the shortlist.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude began campaigning for ministers to be able to select their permanent secretaries from a list of approved candidates in 2012, but his efforts rejected by the commission as they were not backed by the majority of Parliament.

However earlier this month, at a Cabinet Office briefing, Maude told PSE: “[On] ministerial involvement, our view remains the same: the prime minister should be given a choice of appointable candidates. And the Labour party now emphatically takes the same view.

“One of the reasons the CSC gave for not moving down this path was that there was no evidence for political consensus. There now is. Both the coalition parties and the Labour party take that view, so that’s an opportunity for them to revisit the decision.”

Sir David Normington c. pa wire
(Sir David Normington, First Civil Service Commissioner c. PA Wire)

On behalf of the CSC, Sir David Normington said: “We recognise that there is now wide consensus for this change – including from the three largest political parties in Parliament and other non-political bodies such as the Institute for Government and current and former senior civil servants including the Cabinet Secretary. Our foremost concern has been to protect the principle of an impartial civil service, appointed on merit and able to serve the government of the day and any future government, whatever their political colour.

“An important element in our decision has been the assurance from the prime minister and the official opposition that they have no wish to politicise the civil service. These are important assurances. We will monitor closely how this works in practice through our chairing the competitions for these posts and reserve the right to return to our previous position should we feel that the fundamental principles – selection on merit after a fair and open competition - are under threat.”

Sir David also stressed that the CSC is still cautious about this change and that it is important that safeguards are included.

 “The Civil Service Commission has long accepted the need for ministers to be fully involved in the competitions for the most senior posts in their department,” he said. “But we have been reluctant to go further until we were convinced that the principle of a civil service appointed on merit could be fully protected.

“The Commission has listened to a wide range of voices over the last two years and now accepts that our current approach should be revised for head of department posts – currently around 25 posts. We have been cautious about this change - and remain so - but now believe that with important safeguards this change is possible.”

The safeguards the CSC has laid out include that the selection be chaired by the First Civil Service Commissioner, who must approve the panel membership and all aspects of the recruitment process.

The competition can also be paused by the First Commissioner if he or she believes the Commission’s Recruitment Principles are not being followed.

The other safeguards are that the panel alone will determine the candidates and that at no point will anyone be able to be added to the shortlist if the panel has not assessed them as appointable.  

The CSC also say “where only one candidate is judged to be appointable by the panel only that name will go forward to the Prime Minister.”

(Top Image: Aerial shot of Whitehall. Licensed under Creative Commons c. mrgarethm)

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