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The manner of Mark Sedwill’s exit shows how easy it is to undermine civil service impartiality  

Protecting the impartiality of the civil service is a test for all politicians

Protecting the impartiality of the civil service is a test for all politicians but, says Catherine Haddon, it is in their hands to do so – or choose not to

The government would have expected the outcry which followed the announcement of Mark Sedwill’s exit as cabinet secretary and the appointment of David Frost as National Security Adviser.

It is unlikely to be particularly concerned. This administration is worried about the thoughts of the wider public rather than those of ex-ministers and prime ministers, commentators and former officials. It will pay attention to focus groups and internal polling, but it has no intention of being distracted as the Westminster bubble rages on Twitter.

After all, the prime minister’s ousting of the cabinet secretary will hardly cut through in the same way as an announcement of extra funding for schools. And most people will be more concerned about their own jobs than whether David Frost, who also keeps his existing role of chief Brexit negotiator, has too many.

However, the way that Sir Mark Sedwill’s tenure as cabinet secretary has ended still matters. It matters for those civil servants who advise ministers, and what they think ministers want to hear. It matters for the officials who deliver government policies – including on how to get extra money to schools – and when they feel they should push back. Most of all, however, Sedwill’s exit, and the battles and briefings before it, matters because it highlights the fragility of the protections against politicisation – and how easy it is for the government to undermine them.

This government is not the first in provoking accusations of politicisation of the civil service

Charges of politicisation and of undermining the impartiality of the civil service are hardly new. Margaret Thatcher forced out the then head of the civil service, Ian Bancroft, in 1981. Under David Cameron’s premiership, Bob Kerslake quit the same post after sustained negative briefing against him. In the early 2000s Tony Blair allowed, or didn’t stop, briefings against his cabinet secretary Richard Wilson. Wilson eventually retired in 2002. 

Nor are these the first accusations of ‘presidentialism’ aimed at a prime minister perceived to be increasing the amount political appointments and creating an executive centre. It was one of the charges levelled against David Lloyd George a century ago after the creation of a Cabinet Secretariat to record and manage Cabinet meetings.

But if this government really wanted to, and it has a majority in parliament to do so, there is little that can be done to stop it from altering the role of the civil service in fundamental ways.

The protection of civil service impartiality ultimately rests with ministers

One of former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell’s proudest achievements was in putting the impartiality of the civil service on a statutory basis. The 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRAG) provides for civil servants to be chosen on ‘merit on the basis of fair and open competition’, though exceptions are allowed. It also requires that a civil service and special adviser code of conduct be published. And it provides means for civil servants to make complaints against the government.

It also protects the role of the Civil Service Commission, the body that oversees recruitment and management of the civil service. CRAG is a constant constraint on government action, bolstering the role of the Commission and protecting impartiality, but ministers have still sought to push at the boundaries. During the coalition government, Francis Maude, the then minister for the Cabinet Office, repeatedly battled the then First Civil Service Commissioner David Normington over the appointment process of permanent secretaries. Johnson has allowed a strong role for Normington’s successor, Ian Watmore, in the appointment of next cabinet secretary, but he also bypassed Watmore in the appointment of Frost, who will have ‘ambassador’ status. This means his was a direct appointment by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister.

CRAG is not the only protection, however. One of the chief roles of the cabinet secretary is to sometimes stand up to the prime minister: occasionally saying no but otherwise finding alternative solutions when an impasse occurs. That requires having the respect of the prime minister, but it also means that the threat of resignation matters. The way this cabinet secretary is leaving his post is, therefore, particularly worrying.

Any government can test the limits. Conventions can be usurped, and traditions ignored. Acts of Parliament can also be overturned. The model only endures because it has been signed up to by successive politicians.

This government should be wary of undermining the civil service model

It would be an understatement to say there have been mixed signals from Boris Johnson’s government. It says it wants diversity, new ideas, and new people into the civil service, and in a speech this weekend Michael Gove was keen to remind everyone that ‘public service was a privilege’. But ministers have also accused the civil service of an underlying opposition to Brexit. The prime minister has, Frost aside, been quite traditionalist when it comes to appointments at the top of the civil service, and Sedwill’s removal may have been as much about perceived capability as anything else, but it has been reported that Johnson wants a ‘brexiteer’ cabinet secretary. This inconsistency is not new, with Thatcher sometimes wanting to make sure new appointments were ‘one of us.’ If every official is ‘one of them’, however, then government will suffer.  

Impartiality is not just a mere principle; it is also a constant test. For some ministers, who are used to the tribal warfare of politics, and in this case the tribal battles of Brexit, that test is not always easy. Governments want senior civil servants to push back, but then don’t always like it when they do. Troublesome, maverick civil servants haven’t always found it easy to forge successful career paths. The government is right to strive for greater diversity in the civil service. But if only those who agree and acquiesce are chosen, then groupthink sets in at the heart of government.

Undermining the civil service is not a tool for reform. If the government wants to reform the civil service, and remove its impartiality, then it can. At the same time, if it doesn’t want to systematically undermine the civil service, it can stop the briefings. In the end, the greatest protection against political attacks on civil service impartiality are the politicians themselves.


Civil servants
Institute for Government

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