Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, was impressed by an IPPR 2006 international comparative study of the civil service in New Zealand, Singapore, France, the US and Sweden. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
In an attempt to secure cross-party support for civil service reform, the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, has commissioned the left-of-centre IPPR thinktank to undertake a study on how to make the civil service more effective and politically accountable.
The study is the first example of Whitehall commissioning outsiders to undertake policy work for government.
The IPPR beat 20 other bidders for the £50,000 contract and will by late autumn produce a menu of options for ministers based on experiences in New Zealand, Singapore, France, the US and Sweden. The IPPR undertook an international comparative study back in 2006 that has impressed Maude.
He wants to look at radical options including formally contracting departmental permanent secretaries to complete certain ministerial objectives. He also wants to look at the balance between political and civil service appointments. In the US large numbers of civil servants leave after a presidential election, although Maude said on Monday this trait was exaggerated.
The head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, has endorsed the concept of policy work being undertaken by outsiders, but stressed that final decisions rested with ministers on the advice of civil servants.
Both Maude and Kerslake said the aim was not to politicise the civil service, although Maude conceded there had been difficulties when civil servants failed to carry out ministerial instruction and said the aim was to sharpen accountability.
Maude has been struck privately by the extent to which former Labour ministers told him how frustrated they became at civil service obstruction.
He said the civil service reform plan, including the use of external policy-making, has "a high level of buy-in from senior civil servants", adding "we are in the unusual position of three political parties having experience of government, with senior politicians knowing what the issues are".
The 2006 IPPR paper argued that "real accountability can only really be achieved by recasting the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, which militates against effective accountability".
"Without clarifying the respective roles and responsibilities of ministers and officials, it makes it very difficult to distinguish between the performance of the Civil Service and that of ministers," it said.
It also accepted that there was "no binary distinction between policy and operations", but asserted "clearer division of labour is possible".
The author of the study, Guy Lodge, who is still at the IPPR, wrote in 2007: "The Whitehall policy-making process is very insular, often conducted behind closed doors with little attempt to engage stakeholders or capitalise on external expertise. In particular, there is a gulf between those designing policy and those delivering it.
In contrast, Lodge praised the French unified civil service, saying it "guarantees that senior officials are exposed to other parts of public service in local and regional government, giving them direct experience of public service delivery. At the very least, Britain should ensure that central government officials spend more of their careers in local government and other parts of the public sector."