Government business managers appointed

Business leaders drafted into Whitehall to help public service reform agenda - but not all departments are happy, writes Jane Dudman
Lord Browne
Former BP chairman Lord Browne is oiling the wheels in the search for senior executives to sit on departmental boards. Photograph: Lord Browne

The first 11 business managers to be appointed as part of the government's reorganisation of Whitehall department boards have been named.

However, there are still gaps in the list of lead non-executive board members for Whitehall departments, with reports that there has been resistance in some areas to the plan.

Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, was appointed by the Cabinet Office in June to lead the search for senior executives from the private sector to sit as non-executive directors on Whitehall departmental boards.

The Cabinet Office list of the new lead non-executive board members includes Andrew Witty, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, who will take a position at the Department for Business, Inovation and Skills; and Sam Laidlaw, the chief executive of Centrica, who goes to the Department for Transport, where he will work closely with newly-appointed permanent secretary Lin Homer.

Two major departments, work and pensions and defence, still have no lead non-executive director. Lord Browne said the appointment of world-class leaders from outside government to Whitehall's departmental boards was an important step forward for the government's public service reform agenda.

Set a clear strategy

Some departments have been more receptive than others to the shake-up of their boards. One senior Whitehall source recently said that having the secretary of state and the permanent secretary going to the same board meeting for the first time meant it had been possible to set a clear strategy, which could then flow down to the operational board, but admitted that the move was seen internally as "an experiment".

Zoe Gruhn, director of learning and development at thinktank the Institute for Government (IFG), says management boards in Whitehall departments have only been in existence for the past 20 years and vary significantly in the way they operate.

"A lot still depends on the triumvirate relationship between the permanent secretary, the secretary for state and the non-executive director," she said. "Some departments, including the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions, work very effectively.

A report earlier this year by the institute pointed to a "strategic gap" at the heart of the civil service and called for wholesale reform of Whitehall. "The government definitely has good intentions," comments Gruhn, "but there is a question about whether [governance changes] will be for the better.

The IfG has recommended six steps for more effective Whitehall boards, including making the role of non-executive directors clearer, and ensuring the board is supported not by junior members of staff by by a high-profile civil service secretariat.

Gruhn says the lead non-executive director on each board should also be involved in performance appraisals of all board members, including the politicians.

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