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.