02 December 2011

At our event on great resignations Andrew Adonis said civil servants never resign because they don't believe in anything.  Should they?

To the strains of 'fifty ways to leave your lover', we highlighted the great political resigners – the Hezza flounce over Westland, the slow-motion destruction of Thatcher by Lawson-Howe over European monetary integration (not the poll tax); Robin Cook over Iraq and ending with our guest speaker, James Purnell, who gave a compelling account of how and why he decided he could no longer stay in the Brown Cabinet. James in fact argued that we ought to celebrate those who stayed rather than those who went.

But as the conversation ranged over the ineffectiveness of resignations (message – only resign in your thirties and don’t expect it to change anything except destroy your career prospects unless it's during a world war), Andrew Adonis fired a broadside against the great non-resigners – the civil servants who really do, in Margaret Thatcher's memorable phase 'go on and on' – in his view because they don’t believe in anything.

There were resignations among the Foreign Office legal advisers over Iraq – but that was the exception that proves the rule that civil servants just normally stick out the course. Sir Paul Gray fell on his sword over the lost discs at HMRC – but that was hardly a great issue of principle. Heads of executive agencies do depart more frequently – but again over operational failures. But the civil service look like people without principle.

But do politicians really want civil servants who resign because they disagree with government policy? Did Andrew really want large scale civil service resignations over High Speed Rail – or the third runway at Heathrow (a real issue for some of us at Defra and DECC who were charged with publically defending the government’s climate change policies)? Or over the academies programme? It is hard to square that with the notion that we have a non-partisan civil service ready to advise ministers of any stripe. It sounds like rewriting the contract between Ministers and civil servants.

However, it is interesting that top civil servants don’t go when Ministers clearly don’t want their advice. Sir Terry Burns hung on at the Treasury for a year after it was clear that Gordon Brown would ignore his views on the future of financial services regulation. In an earlier transition, Sir Douglas Wass stayed on, completely marginalised – long after Chancellor Howe ignored his admonitions against increasing VAT in the Conservatives’ first budget. In both those cases the end result was an eventual exit, with added peerage in Terry’s case. There was interest earlier in the week at our transitions event on what could be read into recent wholesale departures at the top of Department for Education – were these signs of battles of principle; of loss of confidence – or just bad (or good) luck?

So three thoughts:
•Senior civil servants should be held responsible when they preside over unconscionable failures - but that failure – as we have argued in Making Policy Better – is allowing a policy to proceed without adequate quality assurance not the choice of policy goal which must be for ministers. If they don’t resign, they should be sacked; but
•Expecting civil servants to resign on issues of principle is a real attack on ministers’ mandate and the idea of a permanent civil service and probably not what most ministers want; but
•Ministers should be able to bring in, in a more transparent way, people into departments who want to work on their policies who have much more personal interest in specific policies – and who might then want to resign on issues of principle.