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In-person event

In defence of Civil Service neutrality: the importance of trust and professionalism with Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary

The Institute for Government invites you to a speech and discussion on the governance of the Civil Service.

This event provided a unique opportunity to hear the views of a senior civil servant on Whitehall’s role in the policy making process. Institute for Government Deputy Director Julian McCrae introduced the speech by Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills about the governance of the Civil Service and its role in policy making. 

Mr Donnelly posited that our system of Whitehall governance, which rewards merit and is independent of political influence, remains the best option to deliver effective, coordinated, and independent administration in the early twenty-first century.

The Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 was revolutionary said Mr Donnelly; it led to the unified civil service structure we know and enjoy today. People who work in the central policy civil service (also known as Whitehall) are admitted on the basis of a test, promoted on merit, and directly advise ministers. They expect to retain their roles when ministers and governments change and therefore do not take part in political debate, though they do influence policy. This system allows collective and personal experience to be drawn on and built upon, safe policy debates to occur, and experts to be brought in for short or longer periods. However, this all takes place inside a structure that allows sufficient mutual trust to be built and maintained to allow ministers to take civil service seriously.

To achieve mutual trust, differences between politicians and civil servants must be made clear said Mr Donnelly:

  • Politicians have democratic legitimacy while civil servants do not. Officials must accept politicians having the last word.
  • Politicians generally have a shorter time horizon than civil servants do. Politicians want to make the big announcement at the right time, while civil servants are more apt to want to take the necessary time to examine all options, resource constraints, and scale of risks, even if that means taking longer.
  • However, ministers and officials share the desire to get things right the first time.

Mr Donnelly said civil servants should try to maintain this balance. They should:

  1. Not do for one minister what they would not do for another minister in the same position but of a different party.
  2. Avoid having to answer the question “Why wasn’t I told about this?” by disclosing all potential outcomes that might take place at the outset.
  3. Offer some advice that is not accepted. Ensure a genuine fair hearing of all options that are within the government’s political direction. If politicians’ views are not subject to scrutiny, they may miss the opportunity to consider changing them.

Pre-emptive publicity about decisions in progress can be used to bias decisions one way or the other or weaken the political position of a minister seeking to take a politically tough decision, warned Mr Donnelly. Therefore, public transparency about the decisions being considered would be very different from internal transparency and may actually hinder good policymaking decisions.

A further consequence of the present Whitehall model is that officials must work to support the government of the day said Mr Donnelly. This has implications for opposition politicians—our system requires politicians not in government to distinguish between the policies they may abhor and the officials who are implementing them, especially as they may later have to work directly with those same officials after the election. One thing that helps make this work is that officials are able to acknowledge that elections do not change the realities of the world in which the policies will exist.

So how do we convince the wider public that the Whitehall model is really good for us? Mr Donnelly cited the work of Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve on the qualities needed to instil public trust. These include:

  • Honesty: 150 years of experience have given the UK an honest money management system that is the envy of the world said Mr Donnelly. We also need more media transparency. Media is good at making information available, but erratic at making it assessable. It is also increasingly clear that much trust-related dialogue takes place across social media. Ensuring there is a recognised way for officials to engage this way is a key challenge for the future. This will require effective risk management and a willingness to admit to and correct failings.
  • Public evidence of competence must be achieved said Mr Donnelly, while acknowledging that public profiles for Whitehall officials themselves would blur the distinction between political and civil service roles.

Mr Donnelly concluded that policy neutral officials need a specific set of rules to maintain this “positive neutrality”. Ministers must accept that occasional inconveniences of the system are better overall than a different system. Wider society must trust that it’s getting a good deal. It is worth the effort to improve, while keeping the distinction between political and civil servants, while maintaining why it the model is beneficial.

Mr McCrae furthered the discussion with a series of questions about the consistency of professionalism across Whitehall, the need for privacy in Whitehall, and the unique needs of policy implementation.

Mr Donnelly explained that the professionalism culture in Whitehall has historically been fairly implicit, but it is the role of senior civil servants to ensure more explicit expectations, especially in public service delivery. While Whitehall should not be seen as shut tight, reasoned solutions to political and technical policy disagreements inside Whitehall would be hindered by the glare of media. Finally, it is somewhat artificial to assume a different system would be needed for policy implementation; the current system gives clarity of who is ultimately responsible for policy implementation without removing responsibility from where it should lie.

Questions from the audience included:

  • You said officials must achieve and maintain ministers’ trust. How should they do that?
  • I strongly agree about the need for private space in Whitehall; difficult conversations need privacy in proportion to its level of independence, but I think civil service has fallen down on implementation—don’t we need a higher degree of competence and personal responsibility for policy implementation in Whitehall?
  • Have you read Dominic Cummings’ recent blog presenting his picture that when they came into the Department for Education, they encountered determined obstruction by civil servants, not a well-functioning organisation?
  • Has the can-do culture now changed to the extent that the workability of the Whitehall model is somewhat different?  Are some ministers also still prepared to actually hear arguments against what they might want to do?
  • Even if you leave aside public instances of civil servants being publically rubbished, isn’t the real problem that there is a real move by politicians of several parties to return to more patronage in the civil service? Are your arguments too late?
  • Do people these days still join the civil service for life? How permeable is the Whitehall culture, and what is the critical mass at which point its culture can no longer be maintained if people are changing careers more frequently?
  • How much training do senior civil servants have about how to generate trust of ministers?
  • When you are describing the civil service, it sounds like a priestly cult where people know how to behave: could all ministers give your speech as you gave it?
  • Ninety per cent of what you said was about policy advice and need for a safe space, and then you lumped that in with accounting for and managing the department. If those are all lumped together, does that yield bad governance?  Is that safe space perhaps too safe? 
  • To what extent do you think your policy colleagues share your perception of what makes a good civil servant?
  • Will we look back in a year from now and ask why more letters of direction have not been written?
  • You say trust should come from public evidence and competence, but agreement in the civil service is implicit. How do these mesh? 
  • Do we have in place effective arrangements to ensure that in the modern civil service, training and development of all staff when they join is available? Are implicit understandings in the civil service sufficient?
  • The civil service seems like a very self-contained system in which you decide what is good and judge accordingly. Could you give an example of a policy that has gone from the first discussions to a successful resolution?
  • Do you think part of our problem is that we all have different ideas about what good policy making looks like?
  • Are there issues with the ministerial code that you think need addressing?
  • You said policy advice should be evidence-based and values based; to what extent are civil servants open to or vulnerable to stakeholders/lobbyists?   
  • Lots of policy advice does come from outside groups like think tanks; are civil servants still in a Northcote-Trevelyan generalist mind set where they are unsure how much to engage with experts?


Blog: Alan Budd, Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury from 1991 to 1997, responds

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