Whitehall’s non-executive directors are more likely to quit over failings than use the “nuclear weapon” of trying to sack permanent secretaries, Lord Browne of Madingley has admitted.

The government’s lead non-executive told the Commons Public Adminis­tration Committee that the 60 independent directors brought in to boost departmental efficiency had been shocked by the lack of management information and the bewildering number of objectives and priorities.

He said: “Their first big surprise was how many objectives were priorities. The second was how much lack of meas­urement there was of where things were, where you started from and where you were going.

“It is very important to understand who is accountable for what, what they have committed to, and whether they are achieving what they said they would do… What surprised all of us is that, right across the government, there was nowhere that all of this was put together.”

The independent directors were billed as having tough powers to hold top officials to account and even sack poorly performing permanent secretaries.

Lord Browne said: “They do have this nuclear weapon,” but conceded that, in reality, they acted as intermediaries between ministers and civil servants, and that “there is no constitutional authority vested in these boards… They work by influence and their own respect”.

Lord Browne said that non-executives could “exercise stronger influence” in three ways: “They will leave, and people will ask questions about why they have left… They might comment in the annual report, or they might collectively say that it is time to fire the permanent secretary.”

But he added: “In the best of circumstances they become advisers, critics and protectors simultaneously, for both the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary. They have the role to provide both the sword and the shield on both sides.”