Civil Service Reform Plan
The Reform Plan and the work of the Commission
The Civil Service Reform Plan was published by the Government in June 2012. The Commission welcomes the Government’s strong public commitment in the Reform Plan to an impartial Civil Service on the present constitutional model.
There are two specific proposals in the Plan that touch upon the role of the Commission in ensuring that appointment to the Civil Service is made on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. The Commission’s role relates to external recruitment, when the vacancy is advertised publically and both civil servants and non-civil servants can apply.
The first proposal concerns Permanent Secretary appointments, where the Reform Plan proposes greater ministerial involvement. This has been subsequently explained publicly as a proposition that Secretaries of State should be offered a choice between two candidates judged by the selection panel to be appointable to the role.
The second proposal concerns a small number of time-limited senior appointments that might be made as exceptions to the statutory requirement of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.
Ministerial involvement in Permanent Secretary appointments
The Commission has long supported the view that Secretaries of State should have significant influence on the appointment of senior civil servants with whom they work closely. In the case of Permanent Secretaries, the test of merit should include the ability of the candidate to work effectively in partnership with the current Secretary of State as well as with future ones. But that does not mean that Ministers should, or need to, have the final choice.
The present law, as reaffirmed by Parliament in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, creates a careful balance. On the one hand, the Act requires selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. It gives the Civil Service Commission the responsibility to define what this means, and to give its approval that a selection has been made on this basis. On the other hand, it recognises the right of the Prime Minister to make the appointment and, therefore, enables him to refuse to appoint the recommended candidate. In the Commission’s view, this balance is important in ensuring that Ministers can exercise proper influence in achieving the best possible appointments to an impartial Civil Service.
In recent times the Commission has welcomed and encouraged a more active role for Ministers in top appointments than is probably generally understood. This is particularly true of Permanent Secretaries who are heads of their departments and must be able to lead the department to deliver the Secretary of State’s priorities.
Senior appointments without fair and open competition
The second proposition in the Reform Plan is that Ministers should be able to ask their Permanent Secretaries to appoint a small number of senior officials for specified and time-limited executive management roles, where there is an urgent need and it is not practical to run a full competition.
The current legal framework already provides the flexibility to meet exceptional circumstances. It will always be the Commission’s preference that recruitment to the Civil Service should be through open competition, because this is likely to lead to a better outcome in the long term. The Commission may in the Recruitment Principles exempt a selection from the statutory requirement of recruitment on merit where this is justified by the needs of the Civil Service. The Recruitment Principles describe a number of permitted exceptions. Most of the permitted exceptions are limited to two year period, extendable only with the specific permission of the Commission. In any event, all appointments using one of the permitted exceptions to the most senior levels in the Civil Service need the specific approval of the Commission. The Commission does also have a general power to make exceptions in exceptional circumstances where this is justified by the needs of the Civil Service.
The Commission does not believe there is any need to change current practice in the light of this second proposition in the Reform Plan. Each year the Commission agrees to a small number of requests for senior appointments without fair and open competition, usually to fill posts urgently on a time-limited basis or to bring in specialist expertise for a particular project. The Commission will continue to consider requests, as now, on a case-by-case basis.