The decline in public trust in government

26 July 2013

That's the big issue and not just in the UK. It isn't a convincing argument that in order to tackle the relationship between government and citizen we should focus on the relationship between ministers and civil servants. It's a perennial preoccupation of those in the Whitehall village.

For example the recent one year on report on the civil service reform plan proposes to:

  • give ministers the power to extend their ministerial office by making personal appointments of additional special advisers and other external appointees
  • having already increased ministerial involvement in the permanent secretary appointment,  move to a fixed tenure appointment for permanent secretaries for all new appointments with immediate effect.

But from outside, it looks like navel gazing.

There is a connection though. Insofar as the public are taking any notice, the message that they will have been hearing is that the Civil Service is an obstruction to good government. They may not accept ministers’ definition of good government but they will hear the message that their reduced trust in government is justified.

But hold on. Is that what the evidence tells us? In Scotland, members of the same Civil Service which is alleged not to be fit for purpose without these proposed changes have a working relationship with ministers in the Scottish Government which appears successful. It has delivered programmes of policy and action for several successive governments, taking the unfamiliar experience of coalition government in its stride. It has supported a minority government to deliver its programme despite the single governing party having less than 40% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. At the end of that government’s term, the governing party enjoyed outstanding electoral success and an improved standing in polls of public confidence. The governing parties in the UK at present might do well to ask how they could match those achievements.

I have three reflections on how this more successful relationship between ministers and civil servants in Scotland came about.

First, I know from SNP ministers and special advisers that they had an explicit discussion about whether to trust the Civil Service. They decided they would take that as their starting position and having done so they stuck to that approach, with the discipline that characterised all aspects of their approach to the challenge of minority government. No professing that position in public and briefing against the Civil Service in private, if that rings any bells in Whitehall. In turn, I made it clear that equivalent behaviour by civil servants would be treated as the lack of professionalism and duty to ministers of the Crown, which it is.

Second, they appointed fewer special advisers (and expert advisers or other forms of political sympathisers) than their predecessors, which was read as a gesture of confidence by civil servants.

Third, they accepted that legislation and major policies had to be negotiated issue by issue to create broad support and that the Civil Service has skills in understanding the views of various sections of society which complement the political negotiating skills of ministers. In other words, the test wasn’t how high civil servants jumped when ministers said “jump”, it was civil servants’ ability to establish the preconditions, including trust from citizens or representative bodies, for policies to be deliverable.

Civil servants had to do their jobs well, of course, while embracing simultaneous radical changes of organisation and practice which I and my senior colleagues introduced. They proved that capacity for high performance and openness to change were both attributes of the Civil Service; the same Civil Service, with the same values, as exists elsewhere in the UK.

Fat chance of ministers in Whitehall believing that there are things they could learn from Scotland, of course. So let me look instead at what the international evidence tells us.

The world contains a broad variety of relationships between ministers and civil servants, including arrangements which allow appointments on the basis of political allegiances to posts which are hybrids of junior ministerial and permanent secretary positions as well as ministerial control over appointments. And, of course, the cabinet model which features in the proposals in the one year on report is derived directly from experience in other countries. The pertinent question is, though, what evidence is there that the existence of these practices correlates with higher levels of public trust in government or improved delivery?

As I write this, I am travelling back from Hong Kong and, before that, Beijing.

Even in mainland China, the idea that denigration of senior officials as a group (as distinct from corrupt bad apples) is compatible with building public trust, or that government should neglect the importance of public trust, would be regarded as severely misguided. Their focus, rightly in my view, is on giving senior officials opportunities to continue to learn and develop to meet the huge challenges faced by all governments. Anyone who has experienced the courage with which they face their challenges, and the astonishing pace of economic and physical change they are delivering, would have to concede that their focus on building officials’ capacity and confidence is delivering results. Despite that, they are paying careful attention to trust issues. As well as the focus on bad apples, and on ensuring that the public service ethos is not obscured by junketing, a significant recent statement by the political leadership stressed the importance of listening to citizens.

In Hong Kong, the great fuss while I was there was over the degree of influence which the Chinese Government should have over who was in the field for election to head up Hong Kong’s governmental structure. The bone of contention was a right of veto. That is, of course, the power that ministers already have in our system over Civil Service appointments, in addition to considerable influence during the selection process, although you wouldn’t know it from the recent public debate.

Willingness to learn from other countries in this essentially parochial debate about civil service reform is only selective. And evidence from any source does tend to come a poor second to self-pity by politicians for whom political success is proving frustratingly elusive.

But let me not be harsh. If UK ministers want better delivery, higher public trust and, in time, electoral success I’ll offer them a piece of (politically impartial) advice to get them started. If I wanted to get to those destinations I’d start by asking the right outward facing questions, not the inward facing ones to which the proposals in the one year on report purport to be an answer.

Sir John Elvidge is an IfG Associate and a former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, from July 2003 until his retirement in June 2010.

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One Response

  1. Edward Harkins on 26 July 2013 at 1:02 pm

    It’s probably, dismayingly, pragmatic for Sir John to state, “Fat chance of ministers in Whitehall believing that there are things they could learn from Scotland, of course.” We must, nevertheless try.

    As someone who works in Scotland out-with the civil service or public sector, I endorse Sir John’s assertion that Scottish civil servants ‘have a working relationship with ministers in the Scottish Government which appears successful’.

    Indeed, I would argue that the only breach in the consensus on that point is the periodic personalised attacks on senior Scottish civil servants in the Holyrood devolved parliament from one main political party that acts as a sub office of its Westminster HQ’d party.

    There are IMO two factors that make this article very timely. One is that public trust in political parties, Government and Ministers, in the UK Westminster parliamentary domain, is at a low and seemingly lowering level. Passing on from MPs’ expenses, there have been other, unsavoury, episodes more recently, for example, the ‘Murdoch press and BSkyB’ factor and the dubious (and unaccounted for) background to the UK Coalition Government’s abrupt dropping of policy intentions on alcohol unit pricing and cigarette packing. It is instructive that in some of these episodes civil servants found themselves, through little or no fault or cause of their own, entrapped in the morass of controversy and even scandal.

    The point of relevance is that all this is not a good backdrop for politicians in Government Office to attempt to ‘move aside’ civil servants in policy making and matters of governance.

    Secondly, there is a widespread recognition on the need for all UK public expenditure across all sectors and disciples, to move decisively onto the twin basis of early intervention and, especially, preventative spend. (Sir John was a prominent, frank and persuasive advocate of this need throughout his term as senior civil servant in Scotland).

    Getting onto that basis, however, and notwithstanding the seeming widespread recognition of the need, will be a huge and challenging task. The already exiting barriers include powerful rentier vested interests in every sector and industry, and the beneficiaries of ‘sacrosanct’ populist spend (such as the wasteful and fiscally irresponsible subsidies to would-be owner-occupiers like the ‘Help to Buy’ policy).

    The atmosphere in which the re-ordering or priorities and the abandonment of some expenditures in favour of other (often highly unpopular) ones will be contested, fraught, riven and sulphurous.

    If the UK is to even begin to put that move into practice, a highly competent, respected and mandated civil service, clearly acting in the objective public interest will be essential. Ministers and other politicians in Government acting largely in concert with ‘their own’ special advisers and other external appointees is no fit model for this new epoch of contested and contestable change.
    Twitter: @EdwardHarkins

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