The Committee on Standards in Public Life has issued the latest warning over poor relations between ministers and civil servants. Jack Worlidge argues that, even if relations have warmed under Rishi Sunak, a long-term fix is needed
Few things are more important for effective government than the relationship between ministers and their civil servants. But recent years have seen a notable deterioration, particularly marked by more frequent public criticism of officials by political figures.
As the Guardian has reported 13 Mason R & Weaver M, ‘Ministers’ attacks on civil servants ‘damaged Whitehall staff retention’, Guardian, 14 August 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/aug/14/ministers-attacks-on-civil-servants-damaged-whitehall-staff-retention , the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has issued a warning about the damaging impact this has had on government. And as a soon-to-be published IfG paper will argue, a long-term fix is needed.
Natural tension between ministers and civil servants should be creative, not destructive
In evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), the CSPL describes the “democratic tension” inherent in the relationship between ministers and civil servants.
Anyone who has worked in government will recognise this. Ministers are rightly keen to push on with their priorities, implementing policies that they have a democratic mandate to deliver, and which they believe to be the right thing to do. But civil servants are duty-bound to ensure proposals are watertight – flagging inconvenient facts, raising challenges with implementation or legal concerns, and advising on alternative courses of action where necessary.
At its best, this is a creative tension. Ministers cannot be expected to have planned every detail of implementing a policy, so challenge from the civil service can ensure it is delivered effectively. Ministers, meanwhile, can test civil servants’ assumptions and bring drive and urgency to their departments.
This relies on ministers and civil servants understanding their roles. Ministers have every right to set high standards and challenge poor work, while creating an environment conducive to the provision of frank advice by officials. The civil service, in turn, must provide high quality, honest and impartial advice, and once a ministerial decision has been made – so long as it is legal – implement it fully and without delay.
Poor relations between ministers and civil servants have made government less effective
In recent years, the natural tension in this relationship has been more destructive than creative. Hostility towards the civil service from political figures – for example the deliberately antagonistic attitudes taken by Dominic Cummings 14 Johnstone R & Tolhurst A, ‘Downing Street hit list of perm secs ‘risks serious damage to the civil service’’, Civil Service World, 24 February 2020, https://www.civilserviceworld.com/professions/article/downing-street-hit-list-of-perm-secs-risks-serious-damage-to-the-civil-service and Jacob Rees-Mogg 15 McGarvey E & Blake J, ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg empty desk note to civil servants insulting, says union’, BBC News, 23 April 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61202152 – has led to the CSPL noting “public criticism of civil servants becoming increasingly disparaging in tone”. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, recently (though belatedly) also strongly criticised insulting language directed at civil servants. He added that it had “undoubtedly undermined the good functioning of government”.
While such criticisms have been hostile, the civil service is not without blame. Both the Institute and the CSPL have, for example, noted a dramatic increase in civil servants leaking to the media. Barring exceptional circumstances, such activity is completely unacceptable – and ministers are right to be very frustrated when it happens.
This poor state of relations has real consequences. Morale in the civil service has begun to decline, while staff turnover has significantly increased in recent years. The CSPL noted both issues in their evidence. While significantly reduced real-terms pay will also be a key factor here – and myriad issues contribute to officials’ decisions to move roles – hostility from ministers is sure to worsen many civil servants’ job satisfaction.
Equally seriously, recent tensions have led to claims – with scant evidence – of politicisation in the civil service. The Institute repeatedly argues that the civil service must improve on many fronts, but unfounded allegations of politically motivated conspiracies only underline the depth of the disconnect between some ministers and their officials.
Finally, and most fundamentally, poor relations between ministers and the civil service lead to bad government. Simply put, the quality of ministerial decisions suffers if civil servants feel unable, or are unwilling, to provide robust challenge. Ministers mistrustful of their civil servants, or fearful of leaks, are less likely to be open about their view on any controversial issue.
A long-term fix is needed – it's time to put the civil service on a new statutory footing
Rishi Sunak has attempted 16 Markson T, ‘Blob? What blob? Sunak rejects criticism of civil service’, Civil Service World, 4 July 2023, https://www.civilserviceworld.com/news/article/blob-what-blob-sunak-refutes-criticism-of-civil-service to repair this relationship since becoming prime minister – even if he has missed some opportunities. Simon Case’s recent intervention was also welcome – and suggested that he felt he had the political cover to speak out.
The attitudes of the prime minister and senior civil servants are crucial for setting the tone of this wider relationship. As we argued in our own evidence to PACAC, senior civil servants need to create an environment where officials feel comfortable in speaking truth to power, while understanding when they must transition from challenging to implementing a decision. Widespread understanding of the ‘Nolan Principles’ – as highlighted by the CSPL – and the civil service code are also vital.
Yet relying on individuals is not sufficient. As we have also argued, the lack of clarity around the accountabilities of ministers and civil servants lies at the root of many of the problems of recent years. It is time for a more fundamental reset. Defining a statutory role for the civil service would help to rectify this. Clearly setting out what ministers can expect of civil servants, and creating mechanisms to hold senior officials to account for the capability and performance of the civil service, would minimise frustrations and misunderstandings. Doing so would help relieve much of the tension we have seen in recent years, and ultimately lead to better government.