Francis Maude’s latest plan to get the civil service working more effectively sounds very sensible: so sensible, in fact, that it’s a wonder it has taken so long. The problem is that he currently can’t be as sensible as he’d hoped when it comes to appointing senior civil servants.

The headline announcement is that the government has published the personal objectives of 15 permanent secretaries, along with those for Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood. The worst performing 10 per cent of those civil servants will be identified and put into a programme of performance management. Ministers will also have more involvement in assessing their permanent secretaries’ performance. All very sensible.

There’s some interesting detail in the individual plans that’s worth looking at. Jeremy Heywood’s objectives for 2012/13 are rather oblique, with plenty of aims such as ‘good collaborative working across departments’ and ‘strong relationships with ministers’. His only milestones are: publish the Civil Service Reform Plan, early successful implementation of the contestable policy fund, successful implementation of the policy on shared services, introducing a policy course to the civil service. He is also expected to deal ‘rigorously with poor performers’ among the permanent secretaries. The great shame is that the reports on whether the civil servants have actually met those objectives won’t be published, but for those who keep an eagle eye on these plans, it will be quite obvious when things are starting to slip.

One of the areas where Maude hasn’t been able to be quite so rigorous, though, is the appointments process for those permanent secretaries. I asked him about his stand-off with the Civil Service Commission, which has rejected his plan to allow a minister to interview and choose from a selection of pre-vetted candidates. Would he consider legislating to make this possible against the wishes of the Commission? Maude replied:

‘We hope that won’t be necessary: the legislation has only been in place for 2 years or so. It was 150 years in preparation and finally made it to the statute books 150 years after the Northcote Report. What I have said to the CSC is that that absolutely we will take on board its guidance and test how it works.’

This is a conciliatory note for the time being, but that test will come soon, with two vacancies for permanent secretaries in Whitehall needing to be filled. If the Secretaries of State at the Home Office and Energy and Climate Change departments feel unhappy with their most senior civil servant, and if the relationship ends up being a dysfunctional one, Maude may feel it is necessary to push much harder on this.

Tags: Civil service reform, Francis Maude, UK politics