The Cabinet Office secretary spoke out over concerns that giving ministers a stronger role in appointments would undermine civil service impartiality. “This won’t imperil it being fair and open selection on the basis of merit,” he said.
Mr Maude added that no one argued that ministers should be entirely shut out of the process of picking senior officials.
Fears over the increased role of ministers in recruitment were raised last month when we revealed that David Cameron, prime minister, had intervened to stop the appointment of David Kennedy, chief executive of the climate change committee, as permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
This was despite Mr Kennedy having gone through the selection process by the Civil Service Commission and being told he had the job.
Downing Street, which did not deny that Mr Kennedy had been blocked because of his “green” views, said Mr Cameron was more likely to increase such interventions and wished that he had been more forceful in the past.
Under Mr Maude’s plan, ministers’ roles will be strengthened in the appointment process “to reflect their accountability to parliament for their department’s performance”.
At present, candidates are put forward by the Civil Service Commission, with ministers having a power of veto. But in future the minister would be offered a range of candidates to choose from.
The FDA, the union for senior civil servants, has suggested that the proposals could undermine the service’s impartiality. The Civil Service Commission came out last week to oppose the plan.
But the Institute for Government is more relaxed about the change. Peter Riddell, IfG director, said similar systems already operated elsewhere in the public sector, for example in selecting the governor of the Bank of England:
“In our judgement, it is not apparent that offering ministers a choice, where possible, from a list of ‘above-the-line’ candidates would threaten a “politicisation” of the civil service. There are already a significant number of public appointments where ministers are given a choice of (usually two) candidates put forward by an independent appointment panel. This system operates for posts where the ability to operate impartially is at least as important as it is for civil servants.”
But Mr Maude said it was wrong to imagine that ministers had never had any role in appointments of mandarins. Jack Straw was involved in several appointments as a Labour minister, he said.
Under reform plans, published in June, civil servants will face reviews twice a year – including ministerial input on their performance.
Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, said he would welcome more private sector
candidates for senior jobs in the service, if not entering at the level of permanent secretary.
“We want open recruitment to be the norm and we should try to encourage it so if there are good private sector people they are considered,” he said. However, that would typically be just below director-general level so people could “learn the ropes”, he added.
Sir Bob also admitted that the service was going backwards in terms of female permanent secretaries after the loss of Dame Helen Ghosh at the Home Office and Moira Wallace at the energy department.
“There was a point, which was quite short, where we were equal [in numbers] but we have moved back from that,” he said. About a third of the senior civil service are women and “our ambition is clearly to get to a point where we have equal numbers in the senior civil service of male and female”, he said.
On Thursday Mr Maude will announce reforms that will make public permanent secretaries’ career objectives.
Under the reforms the worst-performing 10 per cent of civil servants will be put on probation and warned that they face dismissal if they do not improve. The top 25 per cent have the chance of fast-track promotion.