Civil Service Weaknesses

Ministers and others frequently draw attention to the undoubted strengths of the Senior Civil Service before going on to list several serious weaknesses.  They usually say that senior officials are too often:

Also, as Fiona Bulmer remarked in 1995:  'One has to wonder about the character of a person who can divorce themselves so completely from the principles of a policy and be so completely dispassionate.  At best they must be cold fish, at worst they lack all conviction'

And yet ....  most Ministers tend to value skills which are ill-suited to tackling longer term 'wicked', strategic or management issues.  James Ball and Andrew Greenway summarised this rather nicely in their book 'Bluffocracy'.

For ministers, the questions at hand are usually related to working out how to manage a current crisis or put through a bit of policy that has landed on their desk.  And for those in the civil service, the best way to rise is to look at getting through whatever policy has the minister's eye.  Simply managing and running programmes agreed years ago are vital roles, but not good for the ambitious. ...    [Quoting Nick Hardwick:-] 'The people who get on ... are those who can write a good minute which gets the minister out of trouble.  Not those who can run things so they don't get into trouble in the first place'.

Indeed, every change of government heralds a sort of Groundhog Day during which new Ministers and Special Advisers proclaim that the previous administration and its civil servants were lazy, stupid and incompetent. There is some substance to this concern, for officials will have learned not to submit policy options which previous Ministers would certainly not accept.  This can encourage a mind-set which excludes options which might be attractive to the incoming administration and/or prioritises the needs of business (say) over those of the poor and vulnerable in society - or vice versa.  Can such officials effectively serve their new political masters and mistresses.

And yet the evidence from all previous changes of administration is that new Ministers slowly get to appreciate the staff that they have inherited.  Ministerial memoirs are then later filled with compliments about the bright people that directly supported them.  They seldom, sadly, spend as much time discussing the virtues of those officials who were good at managing organisations, project management and achieving change.  Michael Heseltine (an experienced private sector manager) was a noticeable exception, but the rest usually end up falling in love with their courtiers and ignoring the rest. 

In more detail …

The Senior Civil Service

Let’s begin with the SCS.  Perhaps the most serious and frequent criticism is that senior officials are too slow to implement, or are incapable of implementing, significant reform in wider society or in the economy.   Ministers and others complain that ‘nothing gets done' and (as well as blaming lawyers and interference from No.10) accuse the civil service machine of obstinacy and incompetence.  These sentiments have been shared to varying degrees by Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair (who preferred official-free ‘sofa government’) and David Cameron (who referred to civil servants as ‘the enemies of enterprise’).

A more recent complaint is that today’s mandarins have over-reacted to the above criticism and have become mere courtiers, and so fail impetuous Ministers by offering insufficient resistance to their ill-prepared plans.  Professor Anthony King, commenting on the first two years of the Cameron government, noted that … ‘Part of the problem is the sheer velocity with which most ministers evidently feel compelled to act. … The spectacle resembles a 19th-century cavalry charge, with some horsemen and their mounts inevitably cut down.’  One wonders, then, what advice was given by officials – and how forcefully it was given.

Follow these links to read more about the difficulty of 'speaking truth to power' and whether it has become more difficult for officials to challenge Ministers.

Support for Ministers more generally, is certainly somewhat patchy. Too much of the best civil service policy-making talent seems nowadays devoted to maintaining the governing party in power rather than in formulating and delivering policy. 

Thoughtful commentators, such as Professor Alison Wolf, mount a mild defence, pointing out that civil servants need to be ‘hierarchist’, by which she means willing to accept significant changes in policy direction imposed from frequently changing political leadership.  Civil servants cannot get too attached to particular policies in case tomorrow’s election or reshuffle triggers a total change of direction.  It follows that it is difficult (verging on impossible) for senior officials either to be 'enthusiastic implementers' (as Ministers would wish) or to be true leaders, for they would then inevitably be competing with their Ministerial bosses.  This impacts on their ability to deliver real change.

It is also the case - as it is in many other careers - that the penalty for making an error is much larger than the reward for success. And this factor is perhaps more important in the senior civil service as it is not possible to continue one's career with a different employer, and it is quite difficult for a civil servant to publicise their contribution to a successful outcome, for Ministers will publicly claim the credit. Most Permanent Secretaries are certainly very risk averse, not least when it comes to approving promotions and making appointments. One told me that he was looking to promote only the "one or two people in each generation about whom no-one has any criticism whatsoever" - and that didn't include me.

It is certainly striking that many if not most Permanent Secretaries seem to have been identified (or have self identified !) quite early in their careers. Michael Jago's biography of Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler records that 'in the entrance examination he had edged out [by ten points] David Walker [whom he saw] as one who would be a likely competitor when they both achieved the higher reaches of the service.  He was [much later] relieved when Walker moved from the Treasury to the Bank of England'.  Note too that Mr (now Lord) Butler's career was greatly helped by his initial posting to the Treasury. Those appointed to other departments - much closer to the public and to industry - have been much less likely to get to top jobs.

In part, the early identification of rising stars may be due to the premium associated with intellect and intelligence.  Oxbridge graduates feature heavily towards the top of the civil service.  Indeed, I clearly remember a junior Minister insisting that his Private Secretary should (like the Minister) be an Oxbridge graduate.  But intelligence is not correlated with common sense or judgement.  There was a nice example on the other side of the Pond.  President Kennedy surrounded himself with the best and the brightest.  McGeorge Bundy, for instance, had been the first applicant to get perfect scores on all three Yale entrance exams.  And Robert McNamara was renowned for his computer-like mind.   But David Halberstam later chronicled how their "hubris and profound moral blindness" landed the United States in the quagmire that was Vietnam.

And most senior mandarins believe in the myth that policy work is much more difficult than any other type of work, not realising that a whole range of work, in all departments, is highly complex, intellectually demanding and usually fairly invisible to top management.  'Management', in particular, is a task best left to others.  Despite all the rhetoric, the civil service does not have enough people who understand how to manage, and certainly not enough who want to manage. 

There is no doubt that many, if not most, senior officials are 'clever' but that does not necessarily make them wise.  There is an old Hebrew proverb that a clever person can get themselves out of a situation that that a wise person would not haver got themselves into.  And ministers and permanent secretaries are certainly very grateful to (and so promote)  officials who can get them out of trouble.  Deliverers, by definition, attract less attention and are to some extent taken for granted.

Some argue that the appointment of less formal officials such as Gus O'Donnell and then Jeremy Heywood as Cabinet Secretaries represents a sea change for the better. I am not so sure. They were both from the Treasury, and neither had significant management experience, having made their mark in press and private offices respectively. They were both excellent courtiers and networkers, but they hardly typify the vast majority of the civil service, even at senior levels. 

Even friendly commentators are accordingly not short of suggestions for improvement.  They typically argue that those civil servants who work most closely with Ministers should:-

Assuming this is true, it follows that the civil service needs to promote different people than it has in the past. And if this is to happen then we have to face up to the fact - and do something about the fact - that we have in the past promoted people who are not suited to the senior positions that they now hold.


The following criticisms are also frequently laid at the door of policy makers in the British civil service:-

We are not the only ones, of course, to have these weaknesses, many of which are associated with the club-like nature of senior professionals and industrialists. Michael Porter wrote that 'British firms have a management culture that works against innovation and change. A penchant for tradition, a narrow definition of responsibility and a high level of concern for form and order are characteristic. That something is 'not done' is a frequently heard phrase'. These charges apply equally to the public and private sectors.

And think of other professions:- doctors, lawyers, teachers. Individually, they are often very talented and dedicated, and often adored or respected by their patients, clients and pupils. But we all know that these professions contain significant numbers who perform very poorly, and which the professions themselves are slow to identify and even slower to deal with. It is 'not done' for professionals to criticise each other, or even learn from each other.

Follow this link if you would like to know more about policy-making in both the public and private sectors.

The SCS Club

Like other professions, senior civil servants form a sort of informal club.  And Michael Coolican notes that:

'Like the members of most clubs, the senior civil service feels most comfortable with new members who are moulded in its own image; consciously or not, the civil service possess one of the most effective cloning processes the world has ever seen.'

They are trained and gain experience which encourages them to understand each other, and to help each other out, to the mutual benefit of each other and their Ministerial teams.  They feel that mutual criticism - unless very carefully handled - will destroy that essential team spirit. They certainly can't directly criticise Ministers. As a result, senior officials prefer what the more erudite amongst them no doubt refer to as oratio obliqua rather than oratio recta: - oblique/indirect language rather than direct talking. (An introduction to the Mandarin's language may be found here.)

And yet a failure to criticise and confront will - as we all know - lead to complacency, herd behaviour, groupthink, and poor service.

Groupthink is inevitably a big problem in the civil service, as it is in all large organisations. Only those assessed by their bosses to have 'good judgement' will be promoted, thus ensuring that radical free thinkers are slowly weeded out as they seek entry the highest levels. 

Poor service - to either internal or external clients - will over time be eradicated if, as in the case of lawyers, clients are free to go elsewhere or if the result of mistakes is sometimes obvious, as in the case of doctors. But most clients do not have a choice of teacher or civil service adviser and the result is that performance is sometimes very poor, whilst attempts to address the problems are often controversial and/or ineffective.

Other Weaknesses

As in all organisations, there is an inevitable tendency of senior managers to recruit in their own image, so the SCS club is somewhat over-populated by those with high IQ and self-confidence but somewhat limited self-awareness.   Many are good at IQ tests, crossword puzzles and passing exams but. as a result, perceive their world as essentially logical and like to make decisions that seem to them logical and reasonable.  They are less likely to empathise with, or understand the needs of, the people affected, especially if those people are less well educated.   One perhaps over-sharp critic told me that she thought that a significant proportion of the SCS were mildly Asberger’s.

There is certainly a great deal of ‘not invented here’ resistance to innovation throughout Whitehall, although it is again not clear whether this is any bigger a problem here than in the private sector.

A separate but related problem is that many Ministers and officials suffer from ‘departmentalitis’. One special adviser perceptively commented that “There is no government.  There are only departments”.

And, like most larger well-established organisations, the civil service finds it hard to be entrepreneurial. Some of the reasons for this are summarised above, but Andrew Cahn wrote an interesting report in 2011 which suggests that the civil service could do better on this front:- The Whitehall Entrepreneur.

Rapid turnover is another problem.  Career and other pressures mean that there is often little continuity in policy teams, no long-term association with particular policies and very little institutional memory.   Officials (like Ministers) often jest (with considerable truth) that they will be long gone before their policy errors are discovered.   Policy making at the national level is ill suited to being carried out by temporary consultant-style project teams.

Concluding Comments

It is, of course, important not to be over-critical of the performance of the British Government, at least since the 1980s.  Despite recent economic problems, most UK citizens are very much better off than they were, and have access to much improved healthcare, education and transport systems.  There is very little corruption, our legal systems are strong, and we live in a very tolerant society.  Crime remains a problem, but this may be more a result of our increasing wealth than any failure of central government or the law enforcement agencies.  Most British citizens would rather live here than in most other countries, and we are second home of choice for many other nationalities.

But trust in Government has declined.  Only 16% believe that the UK Government puts the need of the nation over that of political parties.  And in the 2013 Mori 'Trust' poll, only 18% of people trusted politicians to tell the truth (compared with 53% who trusted civil servants!).  And there have been too many recent examples, listed separately, of serious policy and other failures.  The financial consequences have been huge, although not always accompanied by damage to political reputations.  But it is in truth almost impossible to tell the extent to which fault lay with politicians, or whether they received poor advice and support.  The UK’s unwritten constitution requires politicians to take all the blame.  But does this still make sense, given the size and complexity of the government machine, and of the issues facing it?

Put more strongly, is the Whitehall/Westminster model of government a convenient way of protecting government by a London-based establishment where individuals (politicians and officials) are seldom held to be responsible for policy errors?


Martin Stanley

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