16/07/2015 06:35 BST | Updated 15/07/2016 06:59 BST

A Sense of Direction: When Permanent Secretaries Object to Ministerial Decisions

Over the last few weeks, the government has published details of four 'ministerial directions' given by Secretaries of State to their permanent secretaries.

Over the last few weeks, the government has published details of four 'ministerial directions' given by Secretaries of State to their permanent secretaries.

So what are 'ministerial directions', and why do they matter? This is how my Institute for Government colleague Josh Harris defined them earlier this year:

Each permanent secretary is the accounting officer for their department, directly accountable to Parliament for public spending. As accounting officer, a permanent secretary can object formally to a ministerial decision to spend money if it does not meet the Treasury criteria of regularity, propriety, value for money, and feasibility. If a spending decision breaches any of these criteria, the accounting officer has a duty to ask for a written direction to continue from the secretary of state. The accounting officer then implements the decision - but the minister bears responsibility for it.

Including one published in February 2015, that makes five since the 2010 General Election:


55 directions have been issued since 1990. 14 of these were at the Ministry of Defence, while 12 have been issued at BIS and its predecessors (DTI and BERR). As we can see from the bottom right-hand corner, only three were issued under the Coalition, and two have been issued since the May 2015 General Election.

Although directions can be issued under four different criteria, the vast majority are given after a Perm Sec has raised concerns that a project represents poor value for money. All five issued since May 2015 have been for this reason.


Josh's post following the February direction was unusual for two reasons. First, for attracting a surprising number of teenage pop fans to the Institute's website, given the title of the post. But second, that he was able to post so quickly after the direction, because DfT published it straight away.

Some of the latest tranche of directions have also been published swiftly. But in the case of BIS, the direction given by Vince Cable in January was only published last Friday, 3 July; and even DfT only published the direction given by Patrick McLoughlin on Manston Airport in March towards the end of June.

As Josh pointed out in February, and in a more extensive report in late 2013, this is an area where the public should expect greater transparency. After all, this is about public money, and telling Parliament and the public as soon as a direction was issued would strengthen accountability.

You can find the full list of ministerial directions issued since 1990 in this spreadsheet.