The importance of an impartial civil service is part of the conventional wisdom of government in the UK. Often discussed, sometimes challenged, debate on the subject is not new but often superficial. For supporters of impartiality, the benefits are self-evident. Sceptics claim that civil servants are either working to thwart ministers’ plans or complacent and ineffective; their cure is more political appointments.
Such clashes distract from more valuable debate over the civil service’s effectiveness, and how it can be improved. This is difficult and time-consuming work, but vital, as maintaining a highly effective civil service is the best way to make the case for impartiality.
This Insight examines the concept of impartiality within the context of the UK civil service. It looks at the pros and cons of an impartial civil service, weighing these against the more politicised model seen in France and the US, among others. We find the impartial model conclusively of most value to UK government. But there is no divine right for an impartial civil service to continue to exist; it does so at the discretion of ministers and so rightly needs to prove itself to successive administrations.
Impartiality in the civil service
The development of an impartial civil service in the UK
Impartiality means that civil servants serve governments of all stripes. It is a longstanding principle, dating to the 19th century, that civil servants are appointed on merit, not political favour or connection, and that civil service jobs should not be “for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable”. 10 Northcote S. H. and Trevelyan C. E. Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service, 1854, as retrieved from www.civilservant.org.uk/library/1854_Northcote_Trevelyan_Report.pdf on 23 May 2023
This is the first of three intersecting aspects of impartiality: civil servants being appointed on merit means they develop expertise as permanent office-holders; it is their skill in the job that earns them advancement in their careers. The second is that civil servants act in a non-partisan way when doing those jobs. The third relates to the rules that prohibit more senior civil servants from campaigning for political parties, and requires them to resign if standing for election.
Though long understood, it was not until the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 that civil service impartiality was underpinned in statute for the first time. It required recruitment to be “on merit on the basis of fair and open competition” and established in law the Civil Service Commission (that had long existed on a non-statutory basis) to oversee that requirement. It also mandated the government to produce a civil service code, which “must require civil servants to carry out their duties with integrity and honesty, and with objectivity and impartiality”.
The code includes impartiality as one of the civil service’s core values. Officials must “serve the government, whatever its political persuasion… in a way which maintains political impartiality… no matter what your own political beliefs are” and need to “act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers, while at the same time ensuring that [they] will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom [they] may be required to serve in some future government”. It also applies to special advisers, but with amendments that permit them to act politically in support of the government.
In practice, the way impartiality works is more about the day-to-day culture of the civil service and the example set by colleagues and managers than high constitutional or legislative debate. The experience of working for different ministers and differently constituted governments is how most civil servants experience impartiality. Officials working on different types of government activity might experience the concept differently, but its importance remains. A civil servant working in a job centre implementing benefit changes even if they personally disagree with them is as much a demonstration of impartiality as is the cabinet secretary discussing the merits of a policy with the prime minister.
Impartiality does not mean independence – or neutrality
The civil service is impartial but not independent of government. It is not an alternative source of power, and only acts as an ‘auxiliary’ constitutional and ethical safeguard, as we have called it, to the extent that all officials are bound to uphold the law and accounting officers (generally permanent secretaries) are obliged to safeguard the spending of public money. In this way, civil servants can refuse to work on illegal activity or may ask for a ministerial direction to proceed with something that is irregular, improper, unfeasible or not value for money. Frank policy advice might, or at least should, also give ministers pause.
But ultimately the civil service is part of the government, and civil servants work for ministers. If a civil servant is unable to work on a particular policy, they need to find a different role or, if unwilling to serve the government at all, leave the civil service.
Civil servants who interpret impartiality as distance make an error. Even if it were possible to work on a project, a government service or a policy in a neutral and distanced way, there is no surer means of losing the confidence of ministers and undermining impartiality in the longer run. There is sometimes a debate about whether civil servants are able to bring their personal ‘passions’ or enthusiasms to government policy. Officials can be passionate about a policy, but within the limits set by ministers. And enthusiasm should not blind civil servants to flaws or bad arguments.
The key for most civil servants about being committed to implementing policies with which they might personally disagree is to value the procedures of effective and democratically accountable government over any specific policy outcome. Process matters. It does not need to be slow or bureaucratic, and must not turn into institutional resistance, but it does need to happen. In particular, ministers need to be open to listening to advice from their civil servants, engaging with the issues their raise, and not ask them to act contrary to the civil service code.
If ministers ignore the process – as happened certainly during the Johnson and Truss governments, and at times beforehand – they should not be surprised if the consequence is a dispirited and weak civil service. If for some in those governments this was the intended result then they should shoulder the responsibility for so many of their policy failures.
Ministers already have a major role in senior civil service appointments
Ultimately it is politicians who decide what impartiality means. Ministers could for example, with the support of parliament, remove the legislative requirement for the civil service code to include impartiality altogether and so fundamentally alter the nature of the civil service. But even without doing that ministers could alter the definition of impartiality in the code and their own role in civil service appointments, as long as they could defend those definitions in the courts.
How merit-based recruitment operates in practice is quite routine if, as noted later, far from ideal. Jobs are advertised, applications considered, candidates interviewed by a recruitment panel and then offers are made. Sometimes existing civil servants will be appointed to a new role without a process. That can be to a job at the same grade seniority (a ‘managed move’) or a temporary promotion (‘acting up’) to a more senior grade to fill an urgent gap. The latter should then be confirmed through a more open process, though sometimes that drags on.
At deputy director level and below this process is normally handled wholly by other civil servants, with the exception of some roles that require particularly close working with ministers, like private secretaries, where an informal stage for preferred candidates to meet the relevant minister.
Recruitment to the top three grades in the civil service – director, director general and permanent secretary – is regulated by the Civil Service Commission. Independent commissioners, from outside the civil service, normally chair recruitment panels for directors and must always do so for directors general and permanent secretaries. The other members of the panel will mostly be civil servants at an appropriate grade, though sometimes other external members are invited to participate.
Ministers cannot sit on the panel themselves but play a central part in these appointments. “Where the relevant minister has an interest in an appointment” 12 Civil Service Commission Recruitment Principles, April 2018, https://civilservicecommission.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/02a_RECRUITMENT-PRINCIPLES-April-2018-FINAL-.pdf retrieved 23 May 2023 , they are consulted on and agree the role description, person specification and selection panel. They are entitled to be kept up to date on progress, feed in views and meet shortlisted candidates. The panel then decides on the best candidate for appointment, though here too the minister has influence. They can ask the panel to reconsider and revise its order of merit, recording the reasons for the change, or even reject the list and require the competition to be re-run. For permanent secretary appointments the prime minister is also involved throughout, and ultimately chooses the successful candidate.
It is therefore already absolutely the case that ministers, and particularly the prime minister, can if they wish shape the nature of a civil service competition and its outcome. Their views are not determinative but certainly weigh heavily on the process. This alone should be enough to counter critics’ arguments that ministers are hamstrung by not being able to choose senior staff or at the mercy of ‘activist’ civil servants. We should end the pretence that ministers are not already heavily involved in senior civil service recruitment. Ministers who want to assert influence on civil service recruitment can already do so.
Comparing impartial and political civil service models
An impartial civil service benefits public administration
It is hard to argue with the principle of recruitment on merit. A permanent and impartial civil service with a healthy approach to recruitment and retention should build up a workforce with the skills and specialist expertise needed to support the government. The party political complexion of the government anyway often has less impact on the approach of a department than the individual views of a minister.
Political appointees, coming and going with each election (or reshuffle), would further increase the unhealthy churn in the civil service, whereas civil servants working for a succession of different governments should accrue experience and become ever more adept at the business of public administration. In a crisis in particular, decision making in uncertainty is fundamentally improved by advice from officials who understand the context and may have experienced similar things before.
And to tackle some of the long-term chronic policy problems plaguing the UK, ministers benefit from advisers able to take a long-term view and advise on that basis, even if – perfectly legitimately, if not always wisely – politicians end up focusing on their immediate priorities. Permanence also promotes retention and means that civil servants can aspire to the top jobs, encouraging ambitious people to apply and incentivising officials to strive for promotion.
Civil servants are also more likely to give honest and truthful advice if their job and career are not dependent on ministerial or political patronage. That applies to policy decisions and important operational choices like the award of contracts – and indeed also about a ministers’ personal interests and arrangements and the operation of the ministerial code.
Appointment through an independent and merit-based process means that public officials are less likely to be corrupt and to owe their position to private interests, or to be beholden to personal favours. A permanent administration also goes some way to limiting the growth of private lobbying companies as there are fewer people passing through a revolving door in and out of government, as happens in the US. International and academic evidence shows that meritocratic recruitment is associated with lower corruption. 14 Schuster C, Politicisation of the civil service will result in worse outcomes for citizens, UCL Policy Lab, retrieved 23 May 2023, www.ucl.ac.uk/policy-lab/news/2023/may/politicisation-civil-service-will-result-worse-outcomes-citizens
While the UK civil service is not independent, it does have a role, as noted above, as an ‘auxiliary’ constitutional safeguard, in that officials are bound by the law, and accounting officers have certain duties regarding the effective spending of public money. In a country with an uncodified constitution and where a government with a secure majority has few formal checks on its executive power, an impartial civil service provides an important source of assurance around the professional and ethical conduct of government.
There are practical benefits of a permanent impartial administration too, most obviously that it removes the need to fill hundreds or even thousands of posts after each change of government and so allows governments a quicker start. The lack of a transition period for UK governments makes this particularly important.
More subtly, the existence of a permanent civil service makes the political–administrative connection easier to manage for ministers. In a government department, the essential relationship is between the secretary of state and the permanent secretary – if that relationship is good then all else follows (and if it does not function then, while a single point of failure, it is one that can be addressed by the cabinet secretary and prime minister). There is also an argument that effective power anyway tends to shift to the most senior level of the permanent civil service because that is where the institutional knowledge about how to run the organisation sits.
There would be a cost to moving from an impartial civil service to a politically appointed one. Some officials who had been recruited to be impartial, and enthusiastic about working for governments of different political approaches, would leave government. A talent drain of experienced public administrators would be a damaging loss for the civil service.
Finally, ministers are already equipped with political special advisers. Ministers can appoint, with no process, as many advisers as the prime minister allows. These are classified as ‘temporary civil servants’, distinguishing them from their permanent colleagues, and can inject political insight into a ministers work; they are however prevented from personally running or directing civil service teams.
There are many different ways to run, and staff, a political civil service
It is not always clear what advocates of a more politicised civil service are actually calling for, and there have been no coherent plans published for what it would look like. But presumably such a reform would involve identifying a class of official for whom the impartiality requirement would be waived, whose appointment would be made by the government of the day and whose term in office would be linked to that of the government.
The main question, therefore, is how big that class of politically aligned civil servants would be. In the UK, there are around half a million civil servants in total, of whom about 7,000 are senior civil servants. Examples from other countries show the range of how many and what seniority of staff might be categorised as political.
In Germany, civil servants are appointed for life and cannot be dismissed except as a disciplinary measure. However, officials occupying the two most senior ranks within each ministry are considered ‘political civil servants’. They can be retired at a minister’s request without an explanation, and recalled again at any time, while retaining their full pension rights. It is also permitted for senior civil servants to engage in political activities. In effect, German ministers are able to hire and fire these most senior officials based on their own political views.
Several hundred of the most senior positions within the French civil service are appointed by the president – although in practice the prime minister and relevant minister have a role in deciding high-level appointments. Appointees are drawn from the permanent civil service from a pool of candidates who satisfy merit criteria. But senior officials tend to have known political affiliations, and final selection by ministers is often based on political alignment. Hundreds of senior civil service posts are routinely vacated following a change in government, with unaffiliated senior officials often moving to less prominent roles or to elsewhere in the public or private sector. It is also common for former civil servants to run for political office in France.
Roughly 4,000 of the top officials in the US federal government are appointed by the president. All these positions can change hands when a new administration takes office. Appointees are selected on the basis of both their expertise and political affiliation, drawn from across the private sector, academia and the wider public sector. About 1,200 of these appointments – primarily policy-making roles – must be approved by the senate in a lengthy confirmation process which can leave posts unfilled for months, sometimes years.
In Japan, ministers have the power to appoint civil servants under the 1947 National Public Service Act, but conventionally do no more than rubber-stamp proposals by their ministry’s personnel affairs department. However, in 2014 the prime minister was given greater power over the appointment and dismissal of senior officials through the creation of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. The new influence of the prime minister over the appointment and dismissal of senior officials has since been criticised for creating a strong incentive for officials to curry favour with the political leadership, contributing to scandals over government corruption.
Other ‘Westminster style’ systems have tended to stick with a largely or entirely non-partisan impartial civil service. Australia has more special advisers than the UK but retains the impartiality requirement for civil servants. New Zealand has an impartial civil service with more distance between ministers and officials (physically; they work in different buildings, and administratively, in terms of the organisational structures). Canada retains an impartial civil service, with career public officials acting as ‘deputy ministers’ to their political senior minister.
Political appointments may appeal to ministers but the costs outweigh the benefits
There are of course arguments for political – and impermanent – appointments tied to a particular government’s time in office. The most persuasive is about accountability. If ministers can appoint their own people without constraint, then success or failure becomes more clearly attributable. There would be no room to blame a civil service ‘blob’ for government shortcomings, and nor could senior civil servants hide behind the doctrine of ministerial accountability.
Another argument in favour is that with political debate driven more by issues than party politics, generally declining membership of political parties, and portfolio rather than life-long careers, the world may be heading towards a time when the best people might want to work in a more mission-driven way. It is perhaps harder to motivate driven and ambitious individuals to devote their lives to the process of government, rather than the greatest challenges according to their own beliefs and motivations.
Political appointments could help reduce institutional capture by the civil service. Non-career civil servants would be more likely to cast a critical eye over their own departments and to recognise institutional flaws. They could also lead to senior civil servants taking on a more public role. There would be little need for reticence when making public statements as top officials would be political actors themselves. There would be no need to retreat from or apologise for previously expressed political or personal views. Partisan appointees would also have a greater personal and professional incentive to implement government priorities, and the same pressures might also make them less risk averse than career civil servants.
However, risk appetite can tip into recklessness, and an attachment to a political project leads to less honest advice. Political appointees would almost by definition move jobs even more often, further reducing the expertise and experience available to ministers. This and the fact that personalisation of appointments reduces the recruitment pool could seriously worsen the already severe problems of excessive turnover in the civil service. The case for politicisation of the senior ranks of the civil service has not been made.
Impartiality should be maintained but the civil service must do more to demonstrate its benefits
The UK civil service is still impartial
Some critics of the civil service argue that it is biased against the government, and that is a cautious institution working to resist ministerial demands. Brexit supercharged that debate as ministers accused civil servants of internal resistance. Other critics suggest that the civil service has already become politicised, or at least undermined, by the dismissal of senior officials and their replacement with those sympathetic to ministers’ views. Both critiques to a greater or lesser extent miss the mark.
It is true that many senior civil servants have a comfort zone based on their experience and ideas about what makes for effective government – and some administrations have aligned with those instincts. The 2010–15 coalition, for example, with its reliance on internal negotiation, cabinet committee debate and structured policy making fitted the mould. That comfort zone can need to be challenged, but it should not be confused with opposition to ministerial objectives.
Take the most difficult and contentious policy of the last decade. The Brexit debate has been well documented, with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s blame of “snowflakey work-shy” civil servants for the collision with reality of his plans to scrap thousands of EU laws just one of dozens of spats about whether the civil service needed more Brexit true-believers. The reality is that the civil service did work fairly well on Brexit, particularly once ministers had settled on the model they wished to pursue, and no amount of political appointees would have been able to sidestep the trade-offs involved. 16 Rutter J, The civil service and Brexit, UK in a Changing Europe, 20 February 2021, retrieved 23 May 2023, https://ukandeu.ac.uk/long-read/the-civil-service-and-brexit Lord Frost and Boris Johnson’s breaking of the impasse was because they chose to accept the outline of a deal that their political predecessors had rejected – not because Frost was ideologically aligned with the government.
If there are “activist civil servants” working to frustrate the will of ministers then they are few and far between and should not remain in their jobs. Any organisation of half a million people will include some who behave improperly. The only recent credible evidence of resistance made public was the “Our Home Office” campaign that seemed to be mobilising against the government’s Rwanda asylum seeker scheme. The Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft has been rightly clear that such opposition was inappropriate and that those involved would be disciplined.
Sue Gray’s acceptance of a job as the Labour leader’s chief of staff raised some uncomfortable questions for the civil service. It would have been better if there had been a clearer route for her to take such a job, and the furore showed the value of a break period before Gray starts work for the official opposition. But equally the fact that no minister had any complaints about Gray’s performance while in government – and that her report into Johnson and partygate was welcomed at the time by the then prime minister – shows that she respected the impartiality requirement while in the civil service.
Despite Dominic Raab’s complaints, the investigation into his behaviour found that the officials who raised concerns “were sincere and committed civil servants, with no ulterior motive”. Nobody should take from the Raab and other affairs that ministers cannot give the civil service a tough time, or demand high standards, but the distinction between working to thwart the objectives of the government and giving full, thorough and honest advice is easy to see.
The opposing critique, that the civil service has been undermined by reckless permanent secretary dismissals and the involvement of ministers in civil service appointments, is more persuasive. It does seem to have been the case that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, and then Liz Truss, used sackings as a crude way to discourage officials from speaking truth to power.
There is a need for the civil service leadership to do more to restore confidence and set direction for the organisation. But the evidence of actual politicisation is scant. Sacked permanent secretaries were replaced by other career civil servants, and most officials and ministers continued on with the business of government. The Civil Service Commission has so far managed to regulate the appointment process fairly effectively, enabling ministers to influence the process without undermining impartiality.
To the extent there has been an erosion of impartiality it is that it is harder to be prepared to give tough advice to ministers. A test of this will be a change of government. It is the transfer of power, and whether the civil service proves itself able to work for a future government in the same way as the current one – and to give the same honest advice – that will provide the evidence.
However, the important question for the civil service is whether it is performing effectively and demonstrating the benefits of its permanence and privileged position. Here there is more cause for concern.
A better civil service is the best rebuttal to arguments for politicisation
The danger for the civil service is that it adheres to the principle of impartiality without demonstrating its benefits. There is no automatic right for the civil service in its present form to exist, and it draws its legitimacy from its effectiveness. So that effectiveness needs to be repeatedly demonstrated.
Most officials develop strong professional relationships with ministers. There are skilled people recruited into the organisation. Policy and operational successes like the furlough scheme, Homes for Ukraine and the expansion of offshore wind have seen ministers and their officials work well together. Even bumpier programmes like Universal Credit or reforms to schools have left ministerial and official relationships stronger at the end of them than at the start. And big events like the 2020 UN climate conference in Glasgow or the mobilisation around Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral have seen the operational skills of a permanent civil service put to good use.
The culture of the civil service is a bulwark against corruption. Problems have been exposed – notably on contracts to supply PPE during the pandemic – but while serious are rare and more often concern the political rather than the administrative class. For all the need for greater safeguards, the lobbying of government in Britain is more constructive and contained, and with less money flowing into ministerial or civil service pockets, than in many other countries.
However, the civil service must do much more. The cornerstone of impartiality is recruitment on merit – and there are serious doubts about whether the civil service is currently achieving that. Our research shows obstacles to ‘opening up ’ and finding the best people for some of the most important jobs in government. The recruitment process is too bureaucratic, prioritising a fair process over a fair outcome, security vetting is too slow and there are too many sham processes where the successful candidate has already been tapped up. Networks and cliques – as so often in large organisations – influence many appointments.
The civil service needs to reform contracts to better manage performance and reward success and overhaul the recruitment process to level the playing field between internal and external candidates. There should be more senior specialist roles to advise ministers. Socio-economic diversity in the civil service is too low, with the problem of a lack of diversity of perspective exacerbated as real-terms pay degrades.
Management needs to be improved, with more investment in training to equip people with the right skills. The undoubted benefits of a permanent bureaucracy able to offer long-term policy advice with deep expertise are undermined by rapid staff churn, meaning that policy advice is too short term and inexpert. Officials need to develop deeper career ‘anchors’ to build their expertise and recruitment criteria need to be based on longer sustained achievement in jobs both inside and outside the civil service. Civil servants need to be able to prove that their advice is worth listening to.
A breakdown in trust has led to a dramatic increase in civil servants leaking to the media. Whistleblowing procedures need to be made more transparent, with clearer protocols about how permanent secretaries must respond to whistleblowers’ concerns, and the process for dealing with ethical or bullying complaints about ministers needs an overhaul. But while the civil service leadership and ministers together need to run departments more constructively to address the conditions the lead to leaking in the first place – they then must clamp down hard on those who still pass on sensitive information.
And nobody should be complacent about civil service integrity and honesty. The oversight arrangements for civil servants are more rigorous than those for ministers, but the management of conflicts of interest has been too weak in the past, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) is ineffective in many ways.
With a firm programme of reform the civil service can improve its performance, rebuild the confidence of ministers and the public after partygate, and reassert its legitimacy based on its effectiveness. Thoughtfully designed and honestly applied this would bolster the institution and debates about impartiality would be likely to recede. Such reforms begin with the statutory underpinning of the civil service.
A stronger statutory underpinning of the civil service would improve performance and impartiality
A breakdown in trust between ministers and civil servants throughout the period covering the 2014 Scottish referendum, Brexit and the Johnson and Truss governments has made it harder for civil servants to offer honest advice. That is one reason why the Institute has argued for more clarity over civil service responsibilities – and therefore accountability – with a statute to set out those responsibilities and more opportunities for parliament and the public to scrutinise performance.
A relationship that at times seems broken needs fixing by giving the civil service a stronger statutory underpinning and making its purpose and objectives clearer. That includes marking out those duties for which senior civil servants should be held directly accountable, for example contingency planning.
The Civil Service Commission should also be strengthened, with more staff and a more interventionist approach that can be tailored to ensure the right people are in the right jobs. To defend impartiality as a principle is not to say that the system as it is works, and if the opportunity to reform is not taken then those who would insert politicians more forcefully into civil service appointments will have a stronger case.
There should also be more transparency about policy evidence and advice, to raise the quality of the support ministers have for decision making. It is, as Jill Rutter has also argued for the Institute, “time for a reset” to improve the relationship between ministers and civil servants. A clearer objective for the civil service and better systems for holding it to account would take some of the heat out of the impartiality debate.
More ministerial involvement in appointments is not necessary
While there are safeguards in the system, principally through the Civil Service Commission, to ensure that successful candidates for civil service jobs are qualified and of merit, we have seen that ministers already have substantial influence over job descriptions and person specifications, what factors to consider in the appointment process and, ultimately, who gets the job. In practice, a civil servant at director level or above who does not have the confidence of their secretary of state will either not be appointed, or not last long in the job if they are. The system is, though, rightly designed for it to be difficult to make personal or political appointments if the individual in question does not make it through the selection process.
To maintain an impartial civil service while at the same time increasing ministerial power over appointments would require implausible restraint by ministers not to allow political or personal loyalties to influence their decisions on recruitment. Some ministers would exercise that restraint, but it stretches credulity to believe that over time impartiality would not begin to disintegrate with more ministerial power over appointments. The approach of successive governments to many public appointments to arm’s length bodies, where panels have been stacked and favoured candidates briefed to the media, is notable.
At the same time, the civil service itself is no less prone to appointment by personal loyalty, impulse or allegiance. We should no more assume that civil servants find and appoint the best people than ministers. Some do, some do not, all are subject to human frailties. There is a danger that the civil service becomes complacent about impartiality and uses it as a shield to avoid scrutiny for appointment decisions. The current recruitment process is better than an ‘establishment carve-up’ and open advertising has improved things, but improvements are still necessary.
Personal appointments by ministers have a place but reflect gaps in civil service competence
Some argue for a middle way, to turn the dial on our current system but hold back from a US- or French-style political process for top civil service appointments. The argument is that core civil service jobs ‘in the line’ should not be politicised, but that ministers be given more opportunity to appoint experts, policy and operational advisers directly and from outside the civil service. Unlike special advisers these recruits would not be exempt from the impartiality requirements of the civil service code, but they would be personal appointments by a departmental secretary of state.
That can be an effective approach, and indeed happens already. If a department is lacking expertise or personal challenge that a secretary of state is looking for then it is reasonable to recruit people to fill the gap. But one danger of what was called an ‘extended ministerial office’ with more private secretaries and policy advisers working directly to a minister is that it can isolate the minister from the teams working on their delivery priorities.
A personal relationship between secretaries of state and their key civil service leaders is important for keeping the link between the political objective, the policy decisions and the operational and delivery reality. Rather than introducing new roles to ‘fill in the gaps’ it would be better to improve existing civil service recruitment and talent pools so such appointments were unnecessary.
There does need to be, and is, a way in for senior outside appointments, or ‘tsars’, who can bring value to government – as Kate Bingham did on the vaccine taskforce, Michael Barber on schools and delivery reform, or Jim O’Neill on levelling up and the Northern Powerhouse. But this should be formalised. Making these people appointees to government departments, without having to make them ministers, peers or permanent secretaries, with all the extra responsibilities that come with those roles – and with a mechanism to hold them accountable through select committee hearings – would be a better route than politicising the civil service.
And if it is more political advice that ministers want then they should have the courage of their convictions and appoint more special advisers, while putting the recruitment process for these potentially powerful figures on a more transparent and rigorous footing. Even without increasing numbers, better paid and more experienced special advisers, themselves recruited on merit, would be a benefit to policy making and effective government.
Conclusion: an impartial civil service remains the right model for the UK
Recognising the arguments for and against impartiality set out above, the impartial model remains the right one for the UK. The pros outweigh the cons on their own terms, while the cost of transition to a different model would be high. Recruitment based on merit, policy expertise that benefits from continuity of knowledge and experience across administrations, and the protection against corruption that an impartial civil service offers are deep and important benefits to government.
The uncodified nature of the British constitution and the power of a government with a parliamentary majority to get its way makes an impartial civil service particularly important. The civil service should not be an obstacle to ministerial objectives, but its honest advice about the legal and practical pitfalls to policies underpin the ethical and professional functioning of the state. The impartiality of those who advise on and draft legislation, and the professional standing of those who administer and operate public services, is too valuable to dispose of.
But there is no legitimacy for an impartial civil service other than its effectiveness. Civil servants need to do more to demonstrate that and convince ministers – the ultimate guardians of impartiality – that if they instruct officials in good faith the machine will deliver for them, and for the citizens of the UK.
- Cabinet Office
- Institute for Government