I just read on the Guardian that the hyperactive British minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, “wants fellow ministers to be given the final say in picking a candidate from a list approved by the board”. This would be quite a change in the UK, where civil service executives are selected according to the advice provided by the Civil Service Commission, which is clearly unhappy about Maude’s move.
Giving politician greater room for maneuver in choosing executives can certainly provide a better alignment with political objectives and reduce friction. On the other hand, leaving this to an independent body provides some level of continuity across different governments, ruling parties and coalitions.
There seems to be an assumption that enthusiastic and driven politician can transform government services and operations at a faster pace than before. Existing processes and procedures are often seen as an obstacle, and so are those people who have been patiently working under a previous government. When elections approach, political appointees become more tactical, brush up their resumes and withhold decisions that may have different political ramifications depending on who’s elected. Of course, in those (rare) cases where results are vastly predictable, some of these behaviors become even more extreme, with people who were appointed by the losing coalition already looking for a new job and those appointed by a winning coalition becoming (or remaining) bullish.
While these ups and downs are part of our democratic process, creating a cushion to dampen the effect of politics on the civil service is not a bad idea.
Change in the public sector can be painfully slow and test the patience of ambitious politicians. However sometimes its checks and balances exist for a reason: this is one of those times.