Politicisation of the Civil Service: beware the straw men

15 March 2013

Gus O’Donnell’s Radio 4 Programme, In Defence of Bureaucracy, sought to reveal the Civil Service to a general audience. In doing so, he revealed why the Institute for Government’s research is so important in navigating a path through the various minefields of the so-called ‘Whitehall Wars’.

In 1994 John Major’s Government published The Civil Service: Continuity and Change, a white paper taking stock of the Service after a period of significant upheaval. It is a title that could have been used at any point in the last 150 years. The story of our public administration is precisely one of the enduring tensions between tradition and modernisation.

In line with accepted wisdom, O’Donnell’s programme traced the coming-of-age of the modern Civil Service to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854, which laid down the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. The report also established entry and promotion on merit, rather than the patronage and political cronyism that at the time were rife. Lord Hennessy described this legacy as the “most prized asset the Victorian age gave to British government”.

But that view isn’t shared by everyone. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the programme that “this value of impartiality can sometimes turn into kind of indifference”. He repeated claims made last year that one permanent secretary had told colleagues not to carry out instructions from ministers. Maude clearly feels that, beyond the constructive challenge ministers expect from their officials, there is an agenda at work that runs counter to that of the government.

It is this feeling, which other ministers have expressed both on and off the record, which has given rise to the very public strains that we have seen in recent months. Maude is championing proposals in the Civil Service Reform Plan to reassess the accountability of permanent secretaries to ministers and to increase the role of the latter in top Civil Service appointments.

These proposals have invoked the familiar charge of ‘politicisation’, in which the proud history of the Civil Service ‘speaking truth unto power’ would be swept away under a deluge of party political yes-men. Unfortunately, this framing of the debate seeks to defend the status quo only by attacking a ‘straw man’ in which it would be all-change at the top of the administration after an election, as it is in the United States. Even the most disgruntled government minister is not proposing such a system, so it is more profitable to look at the detail of proposed reforms to accountability, as the Institute is currently doing.

Our work highlights the diversity of international experience and also some of the dangers of cherry-picking reforms from other countries. Ultimately, these decisions are a series of trade-offs, and in practice success depends as much on trusting relationships between permanent secretaries and their ministers as it does on the rules in place.

Who holds the top jobs in the Civil Service is not the only aspect of the politicisation debate – the increasing number and assertiveness of special advisers (spads) in some departments is another source of dispute. In the programme Sir John Major claimed that spads provide an “awkward intermission” between politicians and civil servants, undermining the vital trust between them. However, research by the Institute has suggested that spads do provide vital support to ministers but that there is the need for a more robust approach to their appointment and that the processes for induction, training and support need to be strengthened. Spads can actually play an important role in preventing politicisation, performing roles for the government of the day that would sit uncomfortably with the impartiality we expect from our officials.

We showed in our report last year, Transforming Whitehall, that the scale and pace of cuts is driving immense change in government departments. Against this backdrop, there should be more that unites politicians and officials than divides them – as our Director, Peter Riddell, has argued, civil servants and ministers must better appreciate how each needs the other. Change, therefore, is inevitable, but the best way to achieve it is not to tear up the traditional values of the Civil Service, it is to consider how they should respond to a new context. Continuity and change are always in tension, but that does not mean ministers and civil servants should be too.

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One Response

  1. Ameliariza on 7 April 2013 at 4:25 pm

    An interesting article, but one that contains at least three significant conceptual problems.The first is the assumption that civil servants are able to provide the quality of policy analysis argued for; while politicians can be blamed for many government mistakes, more than a few can also be traced back to impartial experts’ in the civil service. The third is the idea of the impartial civil servant. I’m sure that any bias is unlikely to be as party political as those politicians are subject to, but it doesn’t mean bias does not exist. Established working methods and orthodoxies are common among the civil service (the Treasury, MOD and FCO are prime examples) where a culture of how policy should be done is firmly entrenched. It could in fact be an important role for a politician to shift an unsatisfactory paradigm when entering into government. The third is the inability of politicians, their advisors and political parties to conceive of workable policies. There are surely problems that the vastly under resourced political parties face in coming up with policy, which can undoubtedly affect the quality of the policy being produced, but political parties are also likely to be more in touch with the concerns of voters who can see in real terms if a policy is failing (i.e. DWP and benefits) and with wider society, industry etc. The civil service can often be a closed shop that is too little subject to the effects of the policies they are producing.The idea of secondments of civil servants to assist the opposition to produce policy seems sound to me, for many of the reasons outlined in your article, but the situation is more complex then you suggest.

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