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Civil service politicisation is the wrong answer to the wrong question

Politicisation of the civil service is a solution that risks neither fixing its problems nor delivering its supposed advantages.

Sue Gray's new job with Labour and Dominic Raab's exit from government have highlighted a troubling deterioration in civil service–ministerial relations.

Civil service reform requires ministers to work with officials – not claim that they are being deliberately undermined by a politically motivated civil service

Sue Gray’s new job with Labour is not evidence of a growing wave of civil servants politicised against ministers. It is a career move by a departing civil servant. Dominic Raab is not the heroic victim of a grand civil service plot. He is simply an example of someone subject to the consequences that should follow in any professional workplace when a manager is found to have intimidated their staff. But the debate these cases have triggered highlights a troubling deterioration in the relationship between ministers and officials and risks the wrong answer being given to the wrong question.

It is right to criticise many aspects of how the civil service works 

Inevitably, given that current civil servants have very little public voice, the perspective we have on the breakdown in this relationship is mainly that of ministers. And their account is not pretty. While many ministers praise the officials with whom they have worked most closely – echoing how the public often praise their local MP while condemning the totality of the political class – politicians are increasingly critical of the civil service as a whole. Poor performance management, lack of skills and expertise, obstruction of government policies, paucity of outside experience, reluctance to return to the office post-pandemic and a ‘woke’ obsession with diversity are just some of the panoply of charges laid at the door of modern mandarins. 

There is truth in some of these critiques, even though they are occasionally levelled for political reasons. Rapid turnover of civil servants around Whitehall – driven in part by pay restraint but also by ingrained culture – means too few officials build up real expertise on policy. It is all too easy to move poor performers on rather than out. Lack of clarity about the respective responsibilities of ministers and civil servants means ministers face being held to account for administrative matters of which they stand little chance of being aware. Meanwhile, it is clear that a stint in the civil service has become an even less attractive prospect for successful professionals in other sectors, making it difficult to recruit for the digital, finance and other skills the civil service so desperately needs.  

Frustrated ministers are wrong to argue for an overtly political civil service  

But ministers are wrong to jump from this critique to the conclusion they are being deliberately undermined by a politically motivated civil service. And then to make a further leap to the solution: that an overtly political civil service is needed to advance the government’s agenda. The assumption is that politically affiliated civil servants would pursue their roles with greater zeal, be less risk averse and have more direct accountability to ministers. But these benefits are not as self-evident as is claimed, and this solution of greater politicisation does not price in the downsides of abandoning impartiality – in terms of diluting promotion on merit, disincentivising truth to power and shortening policy horizons.  

The reality that has confronted today’s ministers is the same as that which faced many of their predecessors: the problems that governments have to deal with are large and difficult to solve, so the business of government is often slow and infuriating. The policy decisions that have faced ministers in recent years – dealing with Brexit, a global pandemic and a cost of living crisis – have been thorny and time sensitive. In a period of massive political instability, for ministers – churning at ever greater speed through different roles across Whitehall – this has meant frustration about what can be delivered has been greater still. But it is not clear that allowing ministers to abandon merit-based recruitment in order to give themselves a freer hand to promote or bring political fellow travellers into the top of government would have made any significant difference to the success with which these policy problems were handled. 

On the contrary, Liz Truss’s decision on taking office to sack the experienced and well-networked permanent secretary of the Treasury in the middle of a cost of living crisis highlighted – among other problems – the dangers of turnover of officials at the start of an administration. And complaints about the performance of the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, might be seen as warning against top officials owing their allegiance to a particular set of ministers, if that makes them less likely to highlight potential risks or raise unpalatable challenges to contentious policies.  

A ‘phoney’ war is being used to justify calls for a politicised civil service 

Reform of the civil service is indeed urgent, but it should be a joint endeavour between ministers and officials, not a battle in which attack and defence can be used to excuse poor leadership on one side and inadequate performance or failure to deliver on the other. The biggest priority should be to sort out the confused accountabilities which mean senior civil servants can avoid taking responsibility for poor policy advice or a failure to run their department effectively while some ministers eschew leadership for micromanagement of their officials. A new statute for the civil service would be one way of addressing the current uncertain and dysfunctional position which serves neither side well.     

The ground troops currently positioned in the middle of conflict between officials and politicians are special advisers (SpAds) – temporary ministerial appointees who do not have to meet the normal civil service rule of impartiality but often play an important role as connective tissue between ministers and civil servants. Relaxing politically imposed restrictions on the number of SpAds – working either as political advisers or policy specialists – would have many of the benefits supposed of a politicised civil service without some of the risks of undermining its permanence and impartiality.    

While there is deep mistrust between officials and ministers, Whitehall is not at war. But a phoney war is being used to advocate for the politicisation of the civil service, a solution that risks neither fixing its problems nor delivering its supposed advantages. Instead it risks pulling away another thread of the unravelling British constitution with damaging and unpredictable consequences.      

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