Civil servants should be made accountable for their decisions under a radical programme of reform, a left-leaning think tank argues today.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) says the current code of ministerial responsibility, where the secretary of state or junior minister takes responsibility for every decision in their department, is not conducive to an efficient civil service.
In a new report, the think tanks cites the recent row over foreign prisoners as proof of its argument, saying that although home secretary Charles Clarke lost his job over the inefficiencies in the Home Office, this was unlikely to have any major impact.
With more than 70,000 officials employed across the department, dealing with everything from anti-social behaviour to immigration and prisons, the ippr says individual civil service accountability is the only way to deliver real change.
"The civil service lacks a culture of accountability which significantly undermines its ability to deliver," said director Nick Pearce.
"We have a choice before us. If you hold ministers accountable for everything that happens at their department, including departmental operations, you will never get a high performing civil service.
"Without greater accountability, the only other option is to politicise the civil service. We believe that the way forward is to make the civil service accountable for what it does. This will drive up performance and rectify longstanding problems."
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents about 300,000 civil servants, welcomed the report as a contribution to the debate about "how to tackle major government failures and get to the root of who is accountable".
"Over the last few years we have seen countless public sector IT contracts fail, such as the delivery of tax credits, and the level of services provided by departments reduced in the face of massive job cuts," said general secretary Mark Serwotka.
But the FDA union, which represents 16,000 civil servants, warned against taking a "simplistic approach" when dealing with the issue of accountability and government performance, noting also that major reforms are already underway in the civil service.
"As those who have studied our government are aware, one should be wary of taking a simplistic approach to issues in the complex environment at the interface between senior civil servants and ministers," a spokesman said.
The ippr report, due to be published in July, recommends civil servants be made accountable for their performance, and ministers made accountable for policy and resources - a clarification of roles it says is badly needed.
Parliamentary select committees would have more power to bring civil servants and ministers to account, while a new civil service commission would appoint and review the performance of permanent secretaries, the highest level of civil servant.