The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform  (12)

This is the twelfth in a series of notes which provide more detail about, and comment on, the many attempts – some successful, most not – to ‘reform’ the UK Civil Service.  It focuses on developments after the publication of the late 2013 PASC report recommending the establishment of a parliamentary or similar inquiry into the future of the UK Civil Service.

BGI Hidden Dangers Report

Jumping back in time for a few months, it is well worth noting the July 2013 report by the Better Government Initiative entitled Civil Service Reform - Hidden Dangers.  It was less negative than its title would suggest, and concluded as follows:

The BGI is not complacent about the need for continuous improvement in the civil service and for that reason we are not opposed to most of the proposals for change in the Civil Service Reform Plan (CSRP), which reflect the environment in which the civil service now works. However, we think that not enough recognition is given to the extent to which these changes are already happening, nor, in considering the adequacy of the civil service’s performance, to:

We are disappointed that the CSRP does not address some of the key failings in policy making and implementation we have identified in both our major reports particularly the proposal for Government and Parliament to agree and enforce explicit standards for the preparation of legislation which has recently been endorsed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee Leaders’ Group of the House of Lords has made similar proposals.

Our reports make other proposals that could also help secure more effective working between coalition ministers and the civil service, for example:
 

The Civil Service serves the government of the day, but the government does not own it. It has to remain capable of serving any other government. Each government has to have confidence that the civil service will give it good and well-founded advice and has access to the right knowledge and skills to deliver its programme. For that reason we believe it would be better if changes were made within a cross-party consensus which would last beyond individual parliaments and which could give some Parliamentary endorsement for arrangements which currently rest too heavily on conventions which are subject to continuous incremental change without proper consideration of the implications. That may be achieved by an independent or parliamentary commission, as some including the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee have proposed, or by other means.

The web of conventions, laws and expectations within which the Civil Service operates constitutes a complex eco-system which is likely to fail if one part is changed without proper regard to how it interacts with others.

Academic Comment

Manchester University’s Dave Richards and York University’s Martin Smith posted this comment in Democratic Audit in November 2013:

 … the British system of government is seen to embody a system not of formally codified rules but instead advice - determined by the constitutional principle that [Prime] Ministers act as advisers to the sovereign, having in turn been advised by civil servants. This was based on the convention that officials are in a position to advise a minister on a subject (free from the threat of fear or favour) and as such, there is no requirement for the separation of power between the political and administrative class. This is the antithesis of the US ’Wilsonian model’ or many other European models of government that are premised on more pluralistic sentiments and a separation of powers.

Constitutionally then, the Haldane convention does not recognise any division in the personality of ministers and their officials. This principle of both indivisibility and mutual dependence within the UK system is seen as providing both a practical and constitutional constraint to protect against the arbitrary (ab)use of power. This convention became a bedrock of the Westminster model.  It established the modus operandi that officials and ministers should operate in a symbiotic relationship whereby ministers decide after consultation with their officials whose wisdom, institutional memory and knowledge of the processes of governing helps to guide the minister.  The official is loyal to the minster who takes the rap when things go wrong.  Whatever the problems with this approach, democratic or otherwise, it at least outlined clear lines of responsibility and accountability.

Ministers were the ones held to account even if they often evaded the responsibility. Of course, scratch below the surface and the constitutional niceties of the minister-civil servant relationship have of course proved at times fractious.  The Wilson Government’s suspicion and criticism of Whitehall moved it to establish Fulton, although infamously of course the Haldane principle was left strictly off-limits.  Heath’s re-organisations in the early 1970s was an asserted attempt at ministerial muscle flexing, but Whitehall was not shy in kicking-back.  The Benn side-show during the 1970’s Labour Government offered some entertaining spats when first in Industry, then in Energy, he challenged the standard operating procedures within  Whitehall, so boo-hooing  Haldane. But beyond these skirmishes, it is really only since the 1980s, that the Haldane model has been gradually, and largely implicitly, undermined.

This has coincided with the rise, and further rise, of the cult of managerialism which has seen ministers over the last thirty years constantly challenge civil servants about their managerial and policy skills, led them to seek to diversify their sources of policy advice and shift officials from a policy role to a more managerial role.  In so doing, Haldane’s somewhat mythical depiction of minster-civil servant symbiosis has crumbled, as ministers have sort to use outsiders both in relation to making and delivering policy.

In terms of current plans for civil service reform, the Coalition is continuing this trend, seeking out ways to move towards greater open policy-making, so further eroding Whitehall’s monopoly on policy advice. But while these changes are being acted out, mainly in a piecemeal and ad hoc way, there is no attempt to rethink how this affects accountability.  Officials have increasingly been placed in a managerial role, while policy advice has been ever more politicised.  This creates a major tension in government.

Officials have less responsibility in designing policy but take more blame when things go wrong because it is increasingly seen as their responsibility to manage the delivery of policies.  And of course, the problem for officials is that where failure occurs – be it with Universal Credit, or before it the Child Support Agency, the Individual Learning Account scheme, the Assets Recovery Agency, the Immigration Directorate [and so on] – each case starts with what appears to be a rational and technocratic policy change which becomes politicised and hence entraps the officials in highly political decision making.

Yet when PASC, in the aforementioned report above, made but one recommendation that: ‘Parliament should establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to sit as a Commission on the future of the Civil Service’, it received short-shrift from the Government.   And so here, stasis over this vexed issue has taken hold in the shape of official resistance to openly debate and clarify the changing role and position of the civil service. The problem is that reform is happening without full transparency.  Politicians have a dual discourse in relation to the civil service: on one hand, Whitehall is an organisation of often outstanding and committed public servants; on the other, it can be a conservative and at times, poorly-trained body unprepared for the modern requirements of project management and with little experience of the real world.

The Coalition, rhetorically at least, is committed to what it sees as ‘open policy making’, where decisions are open to scrutiny and a whole range of groups and individuals have access to the policy process.  Yet the reality is that politicians want advice that confirms rather than challenges their world view and so are reluctant to truly embrace a transparent, open and pluralistic policy-making environment.   Instead, what occurs are a whole range of different and often incoherent reforms to the policy process without any explicit discussion of the over-arching nature of the minister-civil service relationship, including for example:
 

Cabinet Office Guidance on Extended Ministerial Offices

The Government's decision to introduce EMOs (See Part 6 of my Note 10) was certainly not welcomed by everyone.  John Rimington, writing to The Times, said that it was “a way of cocooning Ministers in a net of good ideas, press comment and political impulse, and separating them from the realities faced by those who do their work … The busy perambulations of yes-men are rarely helpful”.  It also seemed that only a minority of Cabinet Ministers would choose to create an EMO. 

And Permanent Secretary Martin Donnelly, speaking at the Institute for Government in June 2014, noted that:

"The crucial specificity of the British system is that political or personal advisers are not a separate layer of administration. In France or other countries with a cabinet system, advice will go to the member of the Minister's cabinet for approval and, if necessary change, before being sent to the Minister. Cabinet officials often have considerable decision-making powers in their own right and many issues never make it to the Minister. One implication of this system is that it requires many fewer junior Ministers.  Another is that inter-Ministerial coordination tends to function on two separate levels – political and official - leading to a higher risk of policy incoherence and conflict over resources.  The Whitehall model ensures that official advice is seen directly by the Minister. Additional comments can be provided by special advisers and by the Minister's private office, but they do not change the advice itself. It is this direct access, together with career progression which does not depend on Ministerial patronage, which allows honest and occasionally unwelcome advice to be provided."

But the Cabinet Office Guidance on Extended Ministerial Offices, published in November 2013, was generally seen as sensible and uncontroversial – assuming, of course, that the creation of EMOs was inevitable.  The key para concerning the relationship between the EMO and the rest of the department is reproduced below with emphasis added to the very welcome sentence confirming that the EMO could not require departmental officials to alter their advice, for instance to include EMO views with which they disagree.  Equally, however, sensible officials will certainly seek the views of the EMO before preparing their advice on important and/or prominent issues, just as they currently consult Special Advisers and the No.10 Policy Unit.  It is also interesting to note that one member of the EMO must also report separately the the Head of the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit, thus tightening the grip of and supervision by ‘the Centre’.

An EMO could include civil servants fulfilling the traditional private office role, special advisers and external appointees. The office could include support for policy formation, implementation, media, correspondence, relations with Parliament and so on, as well as the traditional private office function. As part of the approval process to establish an EMO, the PM and DPM will require that a member of the EMO focuses on implementation reporting also to the Head of the Implementation Unit. The success of the office will be dependent on all staff being fully integrated and working as one to deliver the Minister’s priorities, as well as working closely with the rest of the department. Advice from officials in the Department must go to the Minister unaltered, although as now staff in the Minister’s office will often comment on the advice.

The Civil Service Commission separately made it clear that external (i.e. non civil servant) temporary appointments to the Extended Ministerial Offices could, like appointments of Special Advisers, be made other than on merit etc.

Further information about traditional private offices is here.

Accountability at the Top

The first few paragraphs of Accountability at the Top, published by the Institute for Government in December 2013, pulled no punches:

All is not well in Whitehall. Effective government rests upon the existence of strong relationships, built on mutual trust and confidence, between ministers and their officials. ... Yet in recent years tensions and mistrust at the top of Whitehall have been exposed on a frequent basis. There has been public criticism of civil servants – by ministers and anonymous briefers – on issues such as Universal Credit, the West Coast Mainline decision, and the pace of civil service reform. There has been a relatively high turnover of permanent secretaries, which in part reflects ministerial dissatisfaction with their senior officials.  There has been briefing in the other direction too, with officials (or at least ex-officials) criticising the Government’s direction of reform and its treatment of the Civil Service. Our own research has uncovered frustrations and resentment on both sides of this relationship – sometimes justified, sometimes not.

This is by no means the situation everywhere in government. ... But it does appear that amidst the turbulence of large-scale spending cuts, headcount reductions and structural reform, relationships between ministers and senior officials are at a low point. It is our contention that one exacerbating factor is Whitehall’s outdated and opaque accountability systems, which (by design) do not provide clarity about who is responsible for what, to whom, and with what consequences for good or bad performance.

As can be seen from the final sentence of this extract, the authors reached the fairly damning conclusion that there is a lack of clarity around what Permanent Secretaries are personally responsible for – with no job description and a flawed performance objective system. There is also a lack of clear consequences for both good and bad performance.  They accordingly proposed a set of 12 possible reforms that could help to improve matters, including:

Civil Service World Survey

Civil Service World published an interesting article in December 2013.  Here are some extracts:

CSW wanted to gather views on these ideas from an audience which is well-informed about the issues, yet has no personal stake in the outcome. Both civil servants, and serving and would-be ministers, have a clear interest in these reforms – so instead we approached former secretaries of state: people with great experience in this field, but less of a vested interest in backing or challenging the current government, or in pinning recent delivery failures on civil servants or ministers. We also sought the views of former senior civil servants on the findings of our survey.

We contacted all the surviving former secretaries of state (99 in total, from every administration since Margaret Thatcher’s first in 1979), and asked for their views on both the idea of a high-level review of the civil service, and on government’s proposed changes to ministerial private offices and permanent secretary appointments. Twenty-eight individuals replied ….

Sir John Nott says the Freedom of Information Act is partly to blame, arguing that it has “made civil servants more jumpy, selfish, and concerned for their own personal interests and those of the service than those of their minister”. Others laid the blame for declining civil service quality at the feet of past governments. A former Labour minister, for example, suggests that the “fashion, since 1997 particularly, of setting up systems with an endless proliferation of targets, which supposedly imitate private sector systems, has led to a severe deterioration in the quality of public sector management”.

Some former senior civil servants back the idea of a panel, in order to address the tensions in civil service/ministerial relations. Lord Butler, who served as cabinet secretary under three prime ministers, tells CSW that he was initially opposed to the idea, thinking that “these problems could be solved without it”, but the levels of “apparent dissatisfaction of ministers with the civil service” have made him change his mind. He now thinks the problems “are now getting to a point where some sort of commission of inquiry might be useful,”. Similarly Lord Turnbull – cabinet secretary in the mid-2000s – says that “something is going badly wrong at the moment” – though he doesn’t think that a panel could tackle the “unprecedented degree” of public animosity between ministers and civil servants, instead favouring the idea to tackle acknowledged problems in civil service capabilities.

At least one respondent, meanwhile, supports the creation of such a panel specifically in order to consider reforms to the civil service – heading off the government’s current accountability reforms. Lord Robertson, defence secretary from 1997 to 1999, says that a “review is urgently needed before ill-considered steps are taken on the basis of too little evidence.” He is referring to the plans to give ministers the power to personally appoint civil servants, special advisers and external policy experts to form ‘Extended Ministerial Offices’ (EMOs), which were set out in the report Civil Service Reform One Year On, published this July.

One Tory minister, who supports the proposals, says that “it will need watching that it does not get overdone, and create what are in effect personal fiefdoms for the advancement of individual secretary of states’ political careers at public expense.”

But the survey respondents were not just critical of the civil service. A former minister with experience as a civil servant noted that ministers “come and go, usually with big egos, and little experience in their departmental subject matter”, and argued that they must “respect the expertise of the department”.
These remarks are echoed by a former Tory minister who says that “much of the present discussion arises from the fact that we have a very inexperienced group of ministers who have arrived in office with no clear idea about what they wanted to do with power. This puts civil servants in the unenviable position of having to lead the ministers instead of supporting them.”

One Labour politician, although in favour of “a high-level panel to consider the very deep-seated problems in the civil service,” adds that “politicians also have to take their share of responsibility”. They argue that “a blame culture, compounded by constant public criticism and hostile media briefings – especially when combined with a pay freeze – are making it impossible for the civil service to recruit and retain the best people and to work in relationships of trust with ministers.”

Lord Turnbull echoes these comments, suggesting that alongside problems with civil service capabilities, there is an “unprecedented degree” of animosity between ministers and officials, with ministers treating any questioning of their policies as “foot-dragging” and “insubordination” rather than a legitimate challenge to a flawed idea. “They need a different attitude; they need to recognise that the civil service is an asset, and work out a way of making the best use of it,” he says, adding that the idea “that they can shrink a department to a small EMO and bypass the civil service… is a delusion.”

Among the former secretaries of state who were supportive of the establishment of a ‘high-level panel’ to examine the skills and capabilities of the civil service, several emphasised the need to ensure it has the right membership. While the Public Administration Select Committee has called for a parliamentary commission, several respondents commented that any panel of inquiry into the civil service should include experts from various fields. Their thoughts were summed up by one former Conservative minister, who says the panel is “a good idea, which hinges on who sits on it. They need to be experienced and understanding of the current civil service, but also well aware of other systems which work better.”

However, the plan also has vocal opponents. Alan Johnson says it’s not necessary because “for the first time in recent history, all three main parties have recent experience of being in government. The task is to forge a consensus based on that experience, include it in all three manifestos, and get on with genuine reform after 2015.”   His focus on cross-party consensus echoes remarks made by the FDA’s Dave Penman. He says that the union’s support of such a panel would in part depend on this consensus: it would be important that any reforms enacted on the panel’s recommendation would not be undone as soon as a new party came to power.

The next note - No. 13 in this series - continues to look at developments from early 2014.