Homer's odyssey around Whitehall

As Lin Homer moves from the Border Agency to become the new permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, David Walker looks at the role - and what makes a good perm sec
Lin Homer
Lin Homer: she may get more time in her new role at the Department of Transport

Lin Homer's appointment as permanent secretary at the Department for Transport brings a welcome additional senior woman to Whitehall's top table.

The simultaneous arrival of Helen Ghosh at the Home Office might suggest the glass ceiling has been shattered.

More cynical types suggest, on the contrary, that the career string-pullers in the Cabinet Office might be setting women up.

Circumstances are not exactly benign and reputations are more readily made as doers and builders rather than cutters. Homer and Ghosh, along with Ursula Brennan, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence since October, have got to the top as dusk and ice descend.

Homer may have more time in her new job than in her previous post at the Border Agency. Migration is an active area, but not much transport infrastructure is being built. Homer still has some tricky territory to navigate, including re-letting rail franchises and the mobilisation of the shires against High Speed 2.

Homer's switch shows Whitehall playing the old game of musical chairs. With immigration, identity cards and border control, she spent five years running administrative systems, albeit with political dimensions, having arrived at the Home Office both as a Whitehall newcomer and someone with no track record in the subject matter.

On the waterfront

It is true that a former local authority chief executive like Homer (she was at Suffolk county council and Birmingham city council) covers the waterfront and will know a bit about crime and security on the one hand and transport on the other. Nonetheless Homer's new appointment does illustrate how Whitehall continues to put 'in-house form' in front of policy expertise or departmental experience in selecting for the top jobs.

By that I mean 'system' capacity or knowledge of how the beast moves, including MPs, ministers and interest groups. This knowledge is genuine enough, but as it is rarely systematised and is hard to measure, it tends to underpin the civil service's empiricism.

Take the complex policy and delivery issue of how to re-let rail franchises so trains run faster, more frequent, cheaper and more punctual - all while cutting public subsidy.

The theory is that someone like Homer will already know enough about the machinery of power to commission appropriate legal, engineering, economic and similar advice, without herself understanding contracts or the commercial trajectory of such firms as Virgin or Stagecoach.

Transport isn't a big department. Its work has been farmed out to the Highways Agency (which Homer may now have to privatise). But if she has more time for policy, that would seem to require background knowledge about aviation, roads, buses, which is less easy to acquire quickly.

The Whitehall permanent secretary's role remains unclear

For all its importance, the role of a Whitehall permanent secretary's role remains unclear. In the capability reviews of departments, the role hovers, undefined yet omnipresent. Ministers and officials will sincerely say they know, ex post, what a good permanent secretary looks like and rattle off names of those who made the grade.

But it is hard to pin down exactly what sort of animal a permanent secretary is meant to be. In Transport, for instance, who decides the balance in the top job between policy advice, departmental administration and managing the department's multiple clients and partners?

Given the complexity, the recruitment process is likely to remain subtle, and may mean Whitehall retaining greater control over its own turf.

Change may be coming. The Commons public accounts committee has been reflecting, in its sessions on the spending review and departmental business plans, on how departmental cost effectiveness in departments depends critically on senior managers.

Until now, invigilating who gets the top job, and how they perform has been kept within the Cabinet Office, with occasional oversight by the Commons public administration select committee (PAC). Will the PAC get any closer to defining the remit and responsibility of the peculiar job of permanent secretary?

David Walker is a contributing editor on Public

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