Civil Service Reform - Ministers’ Attempts

Ministers have sought to overcome Whitehall’s failings in piecemeal fashion by

A.    Strengthening the centre of government,
B.    Devolution,
C.    Intervening in detail,
D.    By giving special advisers more power, and
E.    Introducing and then strengthening departmental boards, ...

... but there has been no serious review of the fundamental relationship between Parliament, Ministers and civil servants. 

A stronger centre (A) can be seen developing over the years in the form of greater power of No. 10 & the Treasury, and especially the power of the No.10 Policy Unit.  It is these days a brave or foolhardy Secretary of State who ignores the relevant policy specialist in the Policy Unit. And many senior civil servants will spend as much, if not more, time with the Policy Unit and/or the Council of Economic Advisers as with their Ministers. It is hardly a surprise that several former members of these units are now Ministers, up to and including in the Cabinet.

Devolution (B) has had a number of strands, including ...

  1.     politically to Scotland and Wales
  2.     administratively to regulators, agencies and quangos (hence the growth of the “regulatory state”)
  3.     financially through incentives to local authorities, hospitals, schools to compete for funds or in the market
  4.     "Lyons": dispersal of civil servants out of London and the South East
  5.     Gershon: big cuts in Whitehall departments’ head offices, allowing resources to be transferred to the front line.

The growth of regulators and regulation has been particularly interesting. Who would have forecast, back in the mid-1990s, that Ministers would over the next decade empower various regulators to decide interest rates, decide whether we should be provided with potentially life-saving drugs, decide whether the London Stock Exchange should be sold to the Germans, decide whether the Royal Mail should face competition, and so on. These development have happened because Ministers have come to accept that they cannot be trusted to take unpopular but necessary decisions, even if the long-term benefits are clear. Alternatively, or as well, Ministers have decided that they don't want the blame for such decisions. (A more detailed discussion of regulation, in all its forms, is on a separate website).

Ministers and their close advisers have always been tempted to intervene in the detail (C), as demonstrated in this (possibly apocryphal) dispatch from the Duke of Wellington.

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French Forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent by H.M Ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with my best ability, but I cannot do both.

  1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance
  2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

It is a rare modern politician who can resist the urge to set targets for public sector workers - in schools, hospital and local authorities - and also tell them in some detail how they should achieve those targets. And Chancellor Gordon Brown, whilst agreeing to many increases in departmental budgets, required each department, in return, to agree to deliver detailed outcomes set out in Public Service Agreements. Although this development is clearly inconsistent with greater devolution, it remained in fashion for many years until, in April 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that his Government had set too many targets, and that those in health and education had been too crude. Three months later, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pledged that her department would shift "from top-down to trusting". I don’t suppose that local authorities noticed much difference!

Special Advisers (D) have, in truth, been given very little extra power over recent years, but every change has caused controversy.  A more detailed discussion may be found here. 

Departmental Boards (E) have been the flavor of several months but have again made very little real difference as the solutions to the various ‘wicked issues’ – crime, drugs, , energy policy growing benefits bill, out-of-control financial services sector –are all subject to intense political and international pressures and so cannot be tackled entirely logically.  The recent history of Departmental Boards can be found here.


Martin Stanley

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