Working to make government more effective

Insight paper

Civil service–ministerial relations: time for a reset

Relations between civil servants and ministers require an urgent reset.

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Brexit, Covid and Boris Johnson have made existing tensions in relations between civil servants and ministers unsustainable.

Brexit, Covid and Boris Johnson have made existing tensions in relations between civil servants and ministers unsustainable.

This report, the latest in the Institute for Government/Bennett Institute review of the UK constitution, argues that ministers and civil servants need to urgently reset relations – and proposes a new set of duties and responsibilities for civil servants that would put greater distance between them and ministers. This would create more powerful incentives on civil servants to improve the quality of advice to ministers, deepen their expertise and take responsibility for their failures, rather than hide behind the cloak of ministerial accountability.

Building on the IfG’s recommendation to put the civil service on a statutory basis, a proposal since adopted by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK, the report calls for the current duty to serve the government of the day” to be supplemented by a separate requirement to “uphold the long-term public interest. It would fall to civil servants to point out when they thought ministerial actions were inimical to that interest.

To address some of the concerns about ministerial interference in management and working practice, but also short-termism and lack of contingency planning when politically inconvenient, the new statute would offer a clearer articulation and expansion of many of the responsibilities that the most senior civil servants already have as “accounting officers”. 

An expanded set of duties, to be undertaken in consultation with ministers, but where ministers would not be accountable, nor have the final say, would include maintaining and building internal capability to serve current and future governments and identifying long-term trends and potential future policy options.

In addition there would be a separate set of new responsibilities – on which permanent secretaries would account directly to either parliament or whatever independent machinery existed to oversee ethics and standards – to address many areas where there have been growing instances of abuse of taxpayer money and resources in recent years. These could include requirements to advise ministers on requirements under the ministerial code and alert the independent ethics adviser to any concerns and to ensure all official communications meet necessary standards of non-partisanship and do not mislead the public or media.

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