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Has the civil service been resisting Brexit?

Rather than being resistant, Whitehall is responsive to clear political will

The civil service has been criticised again over its commitment to delivering Brexit. Alex Thomas argues that, rather than being resistant, Whitehall is responsive to clear political will – and could be helped by more special adviser appointments.

Liam Fox has accused the civil service of “a deep antipathy to the whole concept of disengaging with the European Union”. Speaking at the Institute, the former international trade secretary cited “the Remain-supporting public statements” of ex-civil servants in the House of Lords and questioned whether these public proclamations were just the “tip of the iceberg submerged in the civil service”. While he admitted that it is impossible “to tell how much of the foot dragging and institutional inertia was due to the civil service itself and how much was a result of political instruction from those senior politicians”, Fox was unequivocal in his demand for major reform across Whitehall.

The doctor’s diagnosis – of a Brexit-blocking civil service – is flawed, but some of the points he raises could be addressed by increasing the political support available to ministers.

The civil service will deliver results if strong political will exists

Fox’s view is that, alongside political deadlock, the last three years have seen administrative resistance which has impeded the delivery of Brexit – and he pointed to an example of a senior civil servant attending a People’s Vote march. While the London-based civil service probably does broadly reflect its political geography, my experience as a former civil servant is that it is vanishingly rare for a government official to let their personal views affect their professional delivery. From the initial creation of the Department for Exiting the EU and the Department for International Trade in a matter of days in 2016, to the vast programme of secondary legislation delivered rapidly last year, there are real examples of commitment to the cause. Steve Baker, a former minister at the Brexit department, appeared to agree when in February 2018 he apologised for suggesting that Treasury officials were trying to influence policy on a customs union in line with their own political views.

Nor does Boris Johnson’s government, with an agreed Brexit position, seem to be meeting resistance from the civil service machine. No-deal preparations were rapidly stepped up before the election, and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is proceeding. The civil service has much to learn from the Brexit experience, but the most serious hold-ups since 2016, like on no-deal preparation, or developing new immigration policies, have been where ministers for understandable reasons could not give a clear direction. When a government sets up rival Cabinet committees to thrash out competing visions of a core policy, as Theresa May did on customs policy in 2018, it is hardly surprising that the bureaucracy struggles to know which way to face.

Where strong political will exists, the civil service responds. Margaret Thatcher’s radicalism, Gordon Brown’s rescue of the banks and the coalition government’s austerity programme were all enabled rather than blocked by an impartial civil service which demonstrated an ability to change direction quickly to embrace the policies of a new government. My experience suggests that government officials jumped to deliver ministerial priorities on Brexit – and became convenient scapegoats rather than genuine obstacles when the government found itself in difficulty.

Political appointments to the civil service should be explored – with care

In his call for reform, Fox cited France, Australia, Sweden and Canada as countries which allow ministers to appoint their very top officials – though he ruled out the United States approach of appointing – and replacing – thousands of officials with each new administration.

Allowing ministers to make senior appointments is not inherently shocking and would bring some advantages – officials personally committed to a cause might more passionately pursue its execution. They will be less cautious, more aware of narrow political windows for action and arguably more accountable for successes and failures.

But these points are double-edged. Creating a large and separate pool of political appointees around a minister also risks him or her becoming unmoored from the administration that is needed to deliver their priorities. Encouraging separation between career civil servants and political appointments might even inadvertently create just what the reforms are designed to prevent: a strong bureaucracy in opposition to a minister.

An easier solution already exists – the government could appoint more special advisers

Recruiting a “political” head of a department will only succeed if that person has the leadership and administrative skills needed to run an institution of many thousands of people, and the nous to navigate a complex bureaucracy. If a ministerial complaint is a lack of experience in leadership and management techniques, then it is improvements to the recruitment and training of civil servants that should be prioritised.

But if Fox is arguing for the creation of a more personal and political layer of support for ministers, then he should turn to an easier – and existing – solution. Special advisers are often reported as being in opposition to the civil service approach, but they are usually seen by civil servants as leaders, allies and colleagues in a department’s desire to get difficult things done well and in line with a government’s political priorities. Calls and pledges to reduce the number of SpAds have become de rigueur, but significantly expanding their pool and increasing the transparency around their recruitment would be relatively straightforward and address the need for more political support for ministers. SpAds are often woefully under-supported in departments, so giving them much stronger administrative and policy support would also be of huge benefit.

Fox argues that “it would be foolish to behave as though the relationship between government and civil service is set in stone” – and he is right to say so. Reform will not always be resisted by the civil service, and civil servants know that there is a long way to go on improving skills, building digital capability and creating a diverse workforce. The danger is in fighting the last battle and reaching for solutions inspired by the heat of Brexit conflicts, which are now over, rather than the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Alex Thomas is a programme director at the Institute for Government.

He was a civil servant until December 2019, most recently as a director in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and as principal private secretary to the cabinet secretary.

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