Ministers change posts too often, are poorly managed and focus too much on the media rather than managing their departments, according to a report compiled from in-depth interviews with officials, ministers, special advisers and non-executive directors across Whitehall.
The civil service suffers from a tradition of promoting poor workers out of their jobs, rotating staff so quickly they do not have to take responsibility for projects, too much automatic promotion, and paying too little to attract and keep outside expertise, the Reform thinktank found.
More than one current coalition minister argued that responsibility for poor performance by ministers went all the way to the prime minister, David Cameron. "The efficient running of a government department has no bearing on [ministerial] career prospects," they are quoted as saying. "The prime minister doesn't say 'Well done!' So if you wanted ministers to engage in the process properly, you'd need to send a much clearer signal that this is something that is valued."
Another minister pointed out structural problems as a result of reshuffling ministers too often. "Frankly if you change ministers every two years you hand vast power to civil servants," they are quoted as saying. "Civil servants have a certain contempt for ministerial office because they know they are moved so often, and not necessarily on merit and ability."
There is also concern about lack of performance management for political appointees. "At the end of the first year I wrote a report on myself and gave it to the chief whip," said one current minister. "I wasn't convinced anyone took any notice so I didn't bother doing it again."
Similar criticisms were levelled by civil servants and ministers over the way officials were managed, both by their seniors and by politicians.
However, ministers will be particularly worried by reports from senior officials that the civil service reform plan, published last summer by the Cabinet Office, "had not led to any changes in their daily working lives", says Reform.
Recommendations from interviewees included reducing the number of civil servants but paying higher salaries, more outside competition for jobs, better promotion prospects for good performers and better management of bad performers. At the same time, officials should be kept longer in jobs to develop expertise and take responsibility for the results of their work, says the report.
For politicians, recommendations include: where possible ministers and permanent secretaries who run each department's civil service should be kept in post for the duration of each five-year parliament, the prime minister should appoint ministers partly based on their ability to run a department, and there should be annual performance reviews.
Ministers should also be able to appoint permanent secretaries, something the Civil Service Commission recently ruled against but which in practice happens often, says Reform.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Trodel