A Whitehall revolution? Maude looks abroad to shake up civil service

Senior civil servants could be fired if they do not deliver specific targets set by ministers, under plans being considered by the Cabinet Office.

Ministers have announced plans to commission a review, to be conducted by an external body, into how governments in other countries divide accountability between ministers and civil servants.

They are particularly interested in the New Zealand model, which sees the heads of government departments responsible for delivering contracts agreed with ministers.

While no decisions have been made yet, officials assume Whitehall will be able to learn from the approaches – and that changes in Britain could be made as a result.

Issues of performance management at the top of the civil services and "where the buck stops" have been demanding attention for some time, according to Nadine Smith, director of communications at the Institute for Government.

"The role of the civil service has become more visible and varied and not always as close to the minister in a department," she said.

"Accountability is an age-old question, but one that has become more and more striking as models of public service delivery have adapted and changed."

Other countries whose models will be considered include Singapore, the United States, France and Sweden.

That raises the possibility that civil servants could become more vulnerable to changes in government. In the US senior staff are appointed by the executive, on the basis that their political sympathies make them the best people to deliver the government's agenda.

"While we are rightly proud of our civil service we shouldn't hubristically assume that there's nothing we can learn from other successful governments, whether like Australia and New Zealand where they have political arrangements which are broadly similar to ours, or like Singapore or the United States where they are more distinct," Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said.

"To meet the future challenges of our fast-changing world Britain's civil service will need to continue to change and adapt, and that's why we are determined to draw on new ideas."

Maude's attempt at civil service reform is likely to meet with entrenched opposition from Whitehall mandarins.

The coalition is seeking to lessen the civil service's input by asking an external body, like a think-tank or an academic organisation, to take on the task of reassessing its role.

Cabinet secretary Bob Kerslake said that open policy-making needed to become a "default" in government, however.

"This is about better equipping the government to carry on doing what it does best, which is delivering essential public services that make a real difference to people's lives," he insisted.

Labour said that David Cameron needed to stop blaming the civil service for the problems faced by the current government.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said: "The idea that we need even more politicised Tory appointees is completely out of touch."