05/02/2013 06:59 GMT

How Amateurism In Britain's Civil Service Can Be Solved

Cabinet ministers should be given the power formally to appoint their most senior civil servants to help end a culture of amateurism in Whitehall, according to an independent think tank.

Insiders, including ministers and key officials, have painted a bleak picture of the inner workings of government telling of a system that lacks expertise and deals with "appalling" members of staff by promoting them out.

They told Reform that the two biggest issues hampering success were the "relentless" rotation of officials and an unwillingness to challenge bad performance or reward the good.

Many ministers also fail to make any real impact because they are badly managed by prime ministers and held in contempt by some civil servants.

One coalition minister said: "The efficient running of a government department has no bearing on their [Ministerial] career prospects. A minister is interested in the media, how they do in Parliament, the next reshuffle. The stuff around making a department run properly is long term, there's no political upside."

civil service

Civil Service reform is now a hot political issue

The think tank interviewed 45 ministers, shadow ministers, special advisers, officials and non-executive directors in government departments since the Government launched its Civil Service Reform Plan last year.

One interviewee said they expected to find a team of experts ready to assist Secretaries of State but instead found a department full of "generalists" because civil servants are moved every two to three years.

The constant rotation of staff and ministers meant no one was ever accountable for the success or failure of long term projects, according to the report.

One special advisor said: "There are some extremely good people and there are some appalling people, and of course everyone knows who they are like any organisation. And the fundamental truth is to get rid of a bad person you promote them out of a job. I have literally seen that happen ... get promoted to an area that we don't care about."

The grinding cogs of Whitehall have long been a cause of frustration to governments and repeated attempts to drive through significant change have been attempted.

Reform's report said many secretaries of state, including in the Coalition government, have effectively ousted permanent secretaries or chosen who they want in the post behind the scenes, despite a convention that the appointments should not be political.

It called for the selection process to be formally opened up so ministers can chose their department's top official, with both expected to remain in post for the duration of the parliament.

The report also suggests cutting the number of staff but paying those who remain more and changing rules so they do not regularly switch jobs.

Jobs should also be advertised externally so expertise can be brought into the system and the best staff should be able to enjoy rapid promotion, it added.

Andrew Haldenby, Director of Reform, said: "The Government has belatedly realised that reform of Whitehall is not an optional extra.

"David Cameron can harness a coalition of support in all three major parties and in the Civil Service itself.

"He needs to care much more about the performance of his Ministers and specifically their ability to drive the Whitehall machine."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The Government is clear that the civil service needs to change in order to meet rising public expectations and the long-term challenges that all economies face.

"Through the civil service reform programme, we are implementing our vision for a more skilled, less bureaucratic, more unified civil service, which is faster, smaller and does more online.

"Our reform programme is designed to address long-standing weaknesses including poor performance management, the lack of skills in certain areas and high turnover.

"We agree that the relationship between ministers and their permanent secretary is the most important in any department and is central to the issue of accountability.

"That is why we are determined to strengthen the role of ministers in permanent secretary appointments."