In the latest blog in our series on the Civil Service , Martin Stanley continues his examination of whether senior officials should be more accountable – especially to MPs – for the advice that they give to Ministers.
Whatever the strength of the arguments for and against greater civil service accountability, there does seem to be a long-term trend towards increasing the public accountability of the most senior officials. Maybe the first evidence of this was the creation of Next Steps Executive Agencies when the Thatcher administration decided that it was reasonable to hold officials rather than Ministers accountable for failures of administration. It was felt that the doctrine that Ministers should be held personally responsible for every failure in a department, however distant and minor, had never made much sense in theory or in practice. Ministers should certainly look for assurance that the right people and systems were in place, but they should not feel they need hands-on control. The more control they assert, the more they will attract blame for failures.
Next came a proliferation of regulators, charged with making many politically sensitive decisions independently of Ministers, including setting energy prices, encouraging competition in postal services, and deciding what medicines may be prescribed. The regulators are often criticised for being unelected, but their Boards and their staff are certainly much more accountable than their opposite numbers (and often ex-colleagues) in Whitehall departments.
Ministers have more recently shown themselves willing to appoint ‘big beasts’ to tackle big challenges. The Olympic Delivery Authority was an undoubted success, and Simon Stevens, as Head of the NHS, has proved adept at wringing substantial sums out of the Treasury, despite concerns about the deficit. But the ODA and the NHS lie outside the UK’s very narrow definition of the civil service.
There is however the possibility that the public will soon be in a better position to judge the performance of Permanent Secretaries because Permanent Secretaries’ objectives are now published – and Ministers are now allowed to choose which Perm Secs they want to work with, albeit from a pre-approved list of apolitical candidates. This is bound to encourage potential candidates to ensure that they are already known to be delivery-focussed and Minister-friendly and that their achievements are better known within Westminster. But it will also encourage them to ensure that their faults and failures are better hidden.
The most far-reaching recent development, however, was the publication of new ‘Osmotherly Rules’ that set out the terms on which civil servants may give evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees. The key principle has until now been that civil servants who give evidence to such committees do so “as the representative of the Minister in charge of the Department and subject to the Minister’s instructions”. But MPs can now, for the first time, question civil servants about their delivery of major projects such as the (delayed) introduction of Universal Credit. The new rules now provide that “Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) for Major Projects” are “expected to account for and explain the decisions and actions they have taken to deliver the projects for which they have personal responsibility”. This narrows yet further the area of decision making for which Ministers accept responsibility.
The idea is that every such SRO should receive a publicly available appointment letter, approved by the relevant Minister, which will define the project and make clear the point at which the SRO becomes directly accountable for the implementation of the project. The SRO will not be accountable for the policy development of the project (even though they may have been involved in it) but they will subsequently be able to disclose where a Minister has intervened to change the cost or timeline of the project, and whether they agreed with the Minister’s decision.
This could work well, for proposed SROs will in theory be able to refuse to become responsible for a project which they believe to be undeliverable within the resources and timescale demanded by Ministers. But it could work very badly if SROs do what officials have done in the past, which is to accept that Ministers are entitled to demand rapid action with limited resources, and so sign up to achieving what they privately believe to be unachievable. This sort of behaviour will be encouraged by Ministers’ new power, mentioned above, to choose their next Permanent Secretary. We will have to look out for fingers crossed behind SROs’ backs as they accept their new public responsibilities.
So it will be interesting to see how both Ministers and the official machine respond to the new rules. Will potential SROs challenge Ministers more often than in the past, and if so how will frustrated Ministers respond? Or will we see a new generation of SRO ‘yes men’ (and women) who will expect their colleagues to forgive and shield them when their project goes wrong. Or maybe appointment letters will be just too vague, so that both Ministers and SROs can escape censure when failure looms. I have yet to see an appointment letter, and will report further when I have done so.