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’).

Part of the problem is that we gently resist ministerial and other political tinkering with properly developed plans.  Such tactical conservatism looks like negativity and obstinacy but it is not evidence of lack of initiative.  It takes genuine courage to stick to a plan, to resist pressure from those who are opposed to your objectives, and to resist reacting to your own inevitable doubts. 

Equally, it can take genuine courage to recommend a significant policy change which the Opposition will undoubtedly highlight as evidence of previous incompetence.  But if the facts change ...

A more recent complaint is that today’s mandarins have over-reacted to the above criticisms 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.  Retired Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty commented that 'singleton oddities' seldom 'get through' - though she was possibly one herself.   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 Senior Civil Service does not have enough people who understand how to manage, and certainly not enough who want to manage. They are very reluctant to criticise other members of the SCS and would do almost anything than dismiss them for poor performance.  And they are equally poor at managing private sector contractors.  Here is one example:

The Times reported in May 2022 that "Ministers were warned about the “inadequate” performance of private firms at the Passport Office six months ago. ... However, not until last month was the boss of Teleperformance, the firm that runs the Passport Office’s customer contact operation, given a dressing down by the Home Office."

One very knowledgeable commentator said the following in a private conversation in 2015:

Whitehall officials do not see themselves as managers, nor are they interested in focussing on Value for Money.  “I’d rather be doing policy”.  Senior officials believe strongly in the value of their intellect.  But very rarely does being very clever beat knowing what you are doing.

The civil service culture is also too defensive, and built on a very strong peer group culture, so that the whole of the senior structure resists change – such as the development of a stronger centre – without always giving proper impartial consideration to such ideas.

The ‘steering and rowing’ analogy can be overdone, but it is true that Ministers too often see themselves as hands-on managers.  Tony Blair famously described himself as HMG’s CEO.  But Ministers seldom have significant private sector experience and can have unrealistic expectations of project feasibility and timescale. 

They understandably like to announce an objective accompanied by a large financial commitment but this can then straitjacket the management of the project itself.   
Senior officials unfortunately seem unable to resist Ministers’ inappropriate interventions.  They know very well that their careers will suffer if Ministers think that they are thwarting Ministers’ ambitions – and they know that their colleagues will not support them.  They therefore don’t take the risk that will be seen as negative, and they don’t seek Directions when perhaps they should. 

John Kingman made similar points when addressing the IfG in December 2020:-

Disdain for Non-Policy Work
But there was also I think a deeper problem, generally unspoken. Not to put too fine a point on it, some permanent secretaries clearly saw procurement as a bit like plumbing – necessary, but not intrinsically very challenging or important.
We have surely all learned by now that good procurement is actually both very hard and very important.
And of course, very similar things can be said about IT, about HR, about property and so on – not to mention great swathes of operational delivery.
The Next Steps model of the 1990s was a serious attempt to address some of these problems – to create delivery structures in which operational, not policy skills would predominate even in senior roles. Ministers would set the direction; officials would have both more freedom and more accountability for delivering it. Yet this model has rather atrophied, for no obviously good reason, and it is perhaps a missed opportunity that Mr Gove shows no sign of interest in re-energising it.
Disdain for Knowledge and Expertise
There remains an excessively one-dimensional notion of the qualities needed in any successful senior civil servant.
What are those qualities? Intellect, of course. Ability to work well with any and all ministers – which necessarily requires pragmatism and deftness turning on a dime. Ingenuity in finding solutions to tricky problems, if only elegantly drafting over the cracks. Ability to engage skilfully with stakeholders, without putting a foot in it. Increasingly over the years, the ability to manage people competently has rightly become much more important.
There’s nothing much wrong with this list, in itself. What’s wrong is what’s missing.
I would argue that a track record of ever having made anything happen, as opposed to successfully keeping the plates spinning, is still – at most – seen as a “nice to have”.
And perhaps most oddly of all, substantial or deep domain knowledge and experience is still not really particularly valued – at any rate in the higher reaches of the policymaking civil service.
I am not sure where this disdain for knowledge and expertise comes from, but it is deep-rooted.
An even older story. In 2003, I was asked by Gus O’Donnell to lead a review of the Treasury. Again, I tried to break down the one-dimensional model a bit. I suggested there might be certain topics – corporate tax, say, or pensions, or the energy market – which were core Treasury business but which were also ferociously complex and technical, and perhaps not ideally suited to being left entirely to even brilliant 24-year-old generalists.
Why not, I naively suggested, create some new roles – outside the conventional hierarchy – these need not manage anyone; they might or might not spend lots of time with ministers; they could and should be reasonably well-paid (at least by the Treasury’s modest standards); they might (I thought) be rather attractive to people, inside or outside the civil service, who are steeped in an area and interested in applying their knowledge at the heart of government.
Gus accepted this recommendation. But it hit bemusement more generally – and proved just too weird and counter-cultural. It died a quiet death.
This indifference to knowledge and experience is of course then directly linked to what Gove rightly calls the “civil service whirligig”. Officials can and do hop from area to area, without in any way damaging their career. There is very little incentive to develop expertise and experience in a particular area – or for that matter to build and sustain real relationships with external stakeholders, which inevitably take time.

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.

Following that 'clever not wise' theme, there was a 2019 FCA/Pensions Regulator survey that suggested that university education made you more, not less, likely to fall for fraud.  This might have been because graduates had typically been less exposed to the rougher side of society and/or over-confident in their cleverness and/or more willing to trust others, especially if well-dressed and eloquent.  How many senior officials would, for instance, have expected that ‘Hundreds of minicab drivers may be working fraudulently after buying qualifications for as little as £500.  An investigation found that drivers in London were paying a private college to complete a compulsory map-reading test needed to secure a licence.  Transport for London (TfL), the authority that runs the licensing system, said it had put 1,667 applications from private colleges “on hold” to check they were correctly obtained.’  (The Times 5 Nov 2019)

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.

Absence of Reforming Zeal

John Kingman made this interesting point when addressing the IfG in December 2020:-

[The people at the top of the civil service] are phenomenally talented.  We are lucky to have them in the public service.
Still: the reformers are – just like the [Fulton era] reformers of 50 years ago – asking these same individuals to upend and rethink fundamental aspects of the system in which they flourished and which got them to the top.
There is absolutely no reason why they could not do this. But how likely, really, is it?
I put this question to a former permanent secretary who ruefully responded that I was missing a further inherent problem: “there is”, he said, “a civil service temperament: a willingness to tolerate and relish the complexity and variety of being part of a big system but being sufficiently dispassionate – and resigned – to accept and adapt to the changing whims of successive ministers”.
His point, I think, is that this is just not a personality type which is ever likely to include many hard- driving reformers or drivers of systemic change.
If so, this is a pity. Because it would clearly be much better for the civil service itself to embrace and drive its own reform, than to have ministers try to find ways to impose it from the centre.


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.

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.

Social Mobility

There was a more detailed analysis of some of the weaknesses of the senior civil service in a Social Mobility Commission report Navigating the Labyrinth and Action Plan published in 2021. They are well worth reading in full, but I particularly noted the following extracts:

‘This study is based on data from an internal Civil Service survey which had around 300,000 respondents. But we have also conducted over 100 hour-long interviews which give deep insights into how people progress in the Civil Service, how they get to the top and how they subtly use existing networks. The right accent and a ‘studied neutrality’ seem to win through at every stage of their career. Even at the lower end of the profession, progress is thwarted for those who don’t know the rules.

Emotional detachment and understated self-presentation are seen as the behavioural hallmarks of senior civil servants, perhaps in contrast to their political leaders. But this ‘neutral’ behaviour can be both alienating and intimidating for those from working class backgrounds.’

An action plan to tackle the problem should include ‘demystifying policy work and providing opportunities for lower grade operational staff to get policy experience’

‘… the Civil Service becomes more socio-economically exclusive as staff progress through the grades. Significantly, however, our data is not able to detect a ‘class ceiling’; even within the SCS nearly one in five are from low socio-economic backgrounds. Ceiling metaphors imply an absolute barrier at the top of organisations, while at the same time suggesting that access to mid-level positions is fair and open. This does not accurately describe the socio-economic profile of the Civil Service. Not only is there a socio-economic gap at nearly every grade but more generally a single, unvarying obstacle fails to convey the variety and complexity of challenges that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds face in their career progression.’

An interviewee said “There’s sort of the official mantra which is, you know, do some operational work, do some policy, do something in a region. But in fact, you look at [mentions three permanent secretaries] and, you know, the sort of greats, and they’ve all been Cabinet Office, Treasury, private offices and just sort of bounced round a very narrow thing.”

Interviewees from low socio-economic backgrounds whose first jobs were operational roles outside London ‘recalled making explicit decisions not to apply for roles in the capital. Instead they opted for (often less high-profile) roles in regional offices. Significantly this was often a reluctant decision, based on concerns about negotiating high living (and particularly housing) costs in the capital or lacking the financial resources to bring up a family.’

‘The announcement in the March 2020 budget that the government would move 22,000 civil servants out of London and into the regions is welcome to address some of the findings mentioned above. However, how this is accomplished is critical. Without proper consideration of job functions, grade levels, specific departments or accelerator roles moving out, it risks concentrating those from higher SEBs even further in London.’

‘Thus there is a particular premium in policy on being able to perform – to conform to what Ministers and SCS expect a policy ‘mandarin’ to look, sound and speak like – because this functions as an act of ‘persuasion’, a proxy for good judgement or high-quality advice that is difficult to definitely demonstrate ‘.

Dominant Behavioural Codes: Key Findings:

Another interviewee: “… one of the things [staff from low socio-economic backgrounds] raise is the degree to which the conversation is all about politics and about, you know, people on Twitter that everyone’s following or certain blogs or certain podcasts and I’m not sure a lot of that is strictly necessary to do our job. That stuff is not going to answer whether or not we should put more money into housing benefit this year [laughs]. You know, the majority of the country are not reading these effing tweets. Probably the entire audience for this tweet that we’re discussing at the moment is in this room [laughs].”

I also recommend that you read this blog which received a warm reception at the time I published it.  In it I suggest that the problems faced by many working class recruits are less because of their class and more because they have not been exposed, as children, to ‘professional’ behaviours.

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.  

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.

The Inflexibility of Civil Service Structures

Civil Servants' love of hierarchy creates quite damaging inflexibility.  John Kingman summarised the problem as follows when addressing the IfG in December 2020:-

About five years ago, I and Bill Crothers (then government chief commercial officer) were asked by the late Jeremy Heywood to lead a programme of commercial capability reviews of government departments, looking mainly at procurement. We did these studies in some depth.
The picture was pretty consistent across government. Departments’ procurement functions were not under-resourced. In fact, the data showed they were well-staffed, by other organisations’ standards. But they were staffed (we thought) with, to put it bluntly, too many of the wrong people: too many junior process administrators, usually with generalist civil service backgrounds; too few serious, experienced commercial people to handle difficult negotiations with suppliers.
So, we went to the permanent secretaries. You need to reshape, we said: bring in more senior, better-paid people; pay for this by getting them to shrink and restructure the ranks working for them.
I don’t think any permanent secretary thought their procurement operations were brilliant. A few embraced our ideas quite warmly. But a larger number clearly found our suggestions unwelcome, and these were quite difficult conversations.
The main problem we hit, I think, was the one-dimensional nature of the civil service hierarchy. Highly paid jobs (by civil service standards) are, it is thought, necessarily senior in the pyramid. By definition, in a hierarchical, pyramidal view of the world, there cannot be too many senior people. Very senior people must, it is assumed, necessarily manage large numbers of people. And the senior people generally are assumed to spend a lot of time with ministers. But why would ministers want to talk to people about procurement? And even if they did, would these commercial types have the necessary courtier skills?
I thought all these assumptions could and should be questioned. There is absolutely no intrinsic reason why salary, place in a hierarchy, numbers of people managed and proximity to ministers must all be rigidly aligned in an inflexible way. It’s really not difficult. Not all jobs need to be the same. Just change the shape and nature of the pyramid.

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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