The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform  (9)

This is the ninth 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 the debate, from 2013 onwards, about whether there should be an independent commission to review the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service.

Conservative politicians within the three-year-old Coalition Government had, by 2013, become frustrated at their failure to make more progress in tackling a wide range of problems.  Whatever the merits of their policy objectives, there was much evidence of an inability or unwillingness to ‘think things through’ before announcing decisions. 

Professor Anthony King analysed the problem very well:

Part of the problem is the sheer velocity with which most ministers evidently feel compelled to act. … they advance rapidly and simultaneously on all fronts: NHS reform, local government reform, law reform, school reform, planning reform, welfare reform, the list goes on.  The spectacle resembles a 19th century cavalry charge, with some horsemen and their mounts inevitably cut down.  The contrast between Mr Cameron and Margaret Thatcher could hardly be more striking. He is hell bent for leather and makes a speech almost every day as though to ram home the point. Mrs Thatcher was at least as radical a prime minister but far more focused and cautious. She had a clear sense of direction but travelled only slowly during the most successful phases of her premiership.

Ministers had certainly faced opposition or obstruction, from time to time, from their Coalition partners, the House of Lords, “Europe”, the European Court of Human Rights, parts of the media, Select Committees and, as they saw it, the civil service.  But they failed to draw the obvious lesson that both they and their officials had to learn to work together in a fundamentally different way if they were to overcome the inertia in the rest of the system.  Maybe more care needed to be taken in advance of policy announcements?  Maybe the problem was that civil servants had been insufficiently robust in challenging Ministers?  Or maybe Ministers needed to be less sensitive to post-announcement setbacks? 

There was perhaps an interesting lesson in Michael Gove’s success in driving change through the education sector.  He appeared to propose numerous eye-catching initiatives to the English and history curriculums, and to GCSEs.  But he quite cheerfully changed the detail of his plans in response to consultation.  Therefore, although he was characterised as no admirer of the civil service, he did seem to be one Conservative Cabinet Minister who knew how to get the best out of his official machine. 

But most Ministers responded (as had so many of their predecessors) by complaining about the ability of the civil service machine to ‘deliver’, and then by embarking on a wide range of quite minor civil service ‘reforms’ whilst entirely failing to consider let alone embark on a more fundamental change program.   In particular, they cast envious eyes at the way in which the governments of some smaller countries, such as New Zealand, were able (Gove-like) to develop policy and deliver change (and also make mistakes) a lot faster than in the UK. 

Those interested in comparing the UK and New Zealand systems might like to read the IfG’s report Reforming civil service accountability – Lessons from New Zealand and Australia as well as New Zealand and UK Compared‌.  In short, the differences between the two systems can be summarised in this way:

  1. The NZ approach is more responsive to Ministers’ ideas and beliefs.  It is rather like a competitive market; it allows Ministers to indulge in messy uncoordinated experimentation, which often goes wrong, but good ideas have a good chance of winning through more quickly.   Once elected, Ministers can simply get on and deliver their manifesto.  Senior officials appear committed and fleet of foot.
  2. The UK approach is much more deliberative.  It doesn’t always do so, but it should stop Ministers announcing proposals that have not been thought through, and it does encourage challenge, both within government and externally in Parliament and the media.  But senior officials appear slow, cautious, uncommitted and sometimes downright obstructive.  

The rest of this note (1-3 below) and Note 10 (4-6 below) and Note 11 (7-9 below) summarise developments in 2013 ...

  1. ... beginning with the complaints about the civil service,
  2. including persistent complaints about the quality of Permanent Secretaries,
  3. before taking a closer look at the Education Department,
  4. and then moving on to the debate about the need for wider reform ...
  5. and an important report from the IPPR,
  6. which led to HMG taking a number of decisions aimed at improving civil service accountability.
  7. Ministers were then reported to be disappointed with the performance of Sir Bob Kerslake, their own appointment as Head of the Civil Service.
  8. And the NAO expressed severe disappointment with HMG’s management of the introduction of Universal Credits, only the day before …
  9. The PASC recommended the creation of a Parliamentary Commission to look at the relationship between Minsters and civil servants.

1.    CRISIS IN WHITEHALL?

The Times of 14 January 2013 focussed on what it said was ‘Whitehall in Worst Crisis’.  One anonymous Cabinet Minister said that the working relationship between Ministers and officials was akin to a permanent cold war. Another said that ‘[officials] think it’s their job just to say “No”’.  Constitutional historian Peter Hennessy said “It’s as bad as I have ever known it.  The ‘governing marriage’ between the Civil Service and the politicians is in real trouble.

Indeed one ‘senior Tory’ was quoted as saying that “The Civil Service sees itself as a check and balance within the political system, and that’s a problem.”  Well – Yes! – the Civil Service does have this role, amongst others.  It would be great if Ministers were to decide that there needs to be a fundamental review of the triangular relationship between themselves, Parliament and the Civil Service.  But they have so far refused to start down this road.  (See ‘Need for Comprehensive Reform’, in Note 10, for further detail.)

One odd feature of the debate was that Ministers were unwilling to list any serious examples of civil service failure and obstructionism, possible because it is in practice very difficult to separate the distinct contributions of Minister and civil servant.  (But click here for plenty of examples of obvious failure of the government machine, to which both parties probably contributed.)  Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, for instance, said that Ministers "too often found that the decisions they made do not get implemented", and "there have been cases where Permanent Secretaries have blocked agreed policies from going ahead”, but he refused - even under some pressure - to give examples.  The January 2013 Times articles did list one or two examples of civil service obstructionism but they were pretty small beer, including the security service telling a Home Office Minister that he had to work on paper rather than an iPad for fear of electronic bugging, and officials ‘refusing’ to let Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude reveal very detailed information about spending on officials credit cards.   But it did seem that Ministers had in both cases decided to accept officials’ advice, albeit reluctantly, so one wonders why they did so, if they now believe the advice to have been wrong. 

But one significant strand in the Times articles was the unacceptably high numbers of errors and high frequency of sheer carelessness, grammatical mistakes and poor drafting in material submitted to Ministers.  Education Secretary Michael Gove got so annoyed that he sent out an email containing drafting advice:– advice with which most of his colleagues (and I) would agree.  His first 7 rules were as follows:

1. If in doubt, cut it out.
2. Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don't send it.
3. In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
4. The more the letter reads like a political speech the less good it is as a letter.
5. Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
6. Read the great writers to improve your own prose.
7. Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.

It is quite hard to understand why it was necessary for such basic advice to be issued, nor why it was issued in his name rather than that of the Permanent Secretary.  Presumably part of the answer was that he had been told that the underlying problem was that his cash-strapped department was not able to afford to employ more experienced, more lively and better educated officials.  Another reason may have been the general de-emphasising of basic training - see Note 6 in this series

It was also interesting that Mr Gove recommended that officials should follow the advice in Gwynne’s Grammar – advice which many thought over fussy and somewhat pedantic.  Oliver Kamm, writing in The Times, said that Mr Gove was promoting a “work of titanic silliness” which has “clogged up the prose of intelligent and articulate people”. And Mr Gwynne himself, interviewed subsequently, stressed that the authors of all letters should take a great deal of time and care over their structure, composition, grammar and content.  This was highly laudable, but totally impractical when policy officials were separately required to achieve 'efficiency savings' by spending much less time on letter writing etc., both so as to cut staff numbers and to release time for activities such as delivery which Ministers and senior officials believe much more important.

The PM’s ex-adviser Steve Hilton also hit the headlines in January 2013 as a result of comments he made when addressing a seminar at an American university.  His main beef was that he had been taken by surprise by a number of policy announcements – including policy decisions with which (in his view) No. 10 did not agree.  The difficulty with this criticism (it was said by others) was that Mr Hilton had taken little interest in ‘the Grid’ – a mechanism through which his predecessors had both kept a close eye on proposed policy announcements, and were able to schedule them so as to avoid possible timing clashes.  It was also pointed out that Prime Minister Cameron had sharply reduced the number of Special Advisers in No. 10, thus reducing his capacity to keep a finger on the pulse of government.  And – anyway – all the announcements will have been cleared by Departmental Ministers, suggesting the Mr Hilton’s main concern should have been with the PM’s inability to control his Ministerial team – an inability experienced by every one of his predecessors and – to some extent – built into the UK’s Cabinet system of ‘equals’.

Mr Hilton also expressed concern that (in his view) too small a proportion of government business was to do with driving forward the government’s reforms, and that most government activity did not relate to legislation going through Parliament but was administrative action such as changes to health, safety and employment regulations.   Most politicians and civil servants, on reading his views, will have been very surprised that he was surprised at his 'discovery'.  Indeed, I strongly suspect (and indeed I hope) that the proportion of management time in most private sector companies that is devoted to its equivalent of reform is much less than in central government.

Mr Hilton had previously made strong criticisms of the civil service whilst serving in No. 10.  However, those criticisms, like his later ones, were weakened by the way in which he expressed them, and the fact that, as has been pointed out in connection with Francis Maude’s reform program, change has to be properly and carefully planned, and that includes careful presentation of the need for change.

PAC Chair Margaret Hodge noted in January 2013 that senior officials (and Ministers) move too quickly between jobs, with negative consequences for accountability.  “[They do not] make longer term decisions with any sense that the consequences … can ever come back to haunt them. … It is as if there is an unwritten rule that failures in big government are inevitable, and it would be unfair to penalise any one individual for any particular decision.

2.    APPOINTING PERMANENT SECRETARIES

One persistent theme, as the LibDem coalition passed the mid-point of its term in office, was Ministers’ dissatisfaction with Permanent Secretaries in particular.  There were several ‘fallings-out’ and Perm Sec resignations, which at least went to show that Minsters did weald considerable power in this area if they chose to wield it.  Indeed, there was by 2013 only one Perm Sec in post who had been in post in 2007, and 19 out of the 20 Perm Secs had either left or been moved between departments since the 2010 general election.  The downside, of course, was that the 19 were often inexperienced and/or working in departments whose issues, strengths, weaknesses and organisation they did not understand at all well – a fact which was all too apparent to their staff.  It was probably also a significant contributory factor in the poor performance of the coalition government.

Permanent Secretaries are appointed by the Prime Minister following a process (enshrined to a great extent in law) which involves the Cabinet Minster meeting each short-listed candidate and providing feedback to the appointment panel which includes the Cabinet Secretary and the Civil Service Commission.  The panel’s preferred candidate is then appointed unless the PM disagrees, which happens very seldom but did happen in 2012 when he refused to appoint scientist David Kennedy at DECC, possibly because of his limited management experience.  But perhaps, too, this Guardian’s blog was in the right area:   Why Cameron then blackballed his appointment, he won't say. But it's not hard to guess: Kennedy is seen as too "green".

The Government trailed the suggestion that Ministers should be allowed to choose between the short-listed candidates.  The Civil Service Commission refused to support this proposal (and so in practice vetoed the necessary legislation) but did concede that Ministers may meet the preferred candidate (i.e. for the second time) and ask the panel to reconsider its decision.

The IfG held an interesting discussion in January 2013 at which Sir David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner, said that allowing Ministers to choose their own Permanent Secretaries would be “the first step down the road to personal patronage and politicisation. … [Ministers] have opened up a much wider questioning of whether the present model of a UK civil service, politically impartial, recruited on merit through fair and open competition, is still valid”.  The Commission said that, although they welcomed substantial Ministerial involvement in the process, it should be the independent selection panel which must ensure the integrity of the whole process, and the impartiality of the Senior Civil Service, so that it can serve not only the government of the day but also future governments with different political views.

The discussion included an exchange between former Cabinet Minister Caroline Spelman and former Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull in which Sir Andrew told Ms Spelman that she should not have accepted advice that she was not allowed to question short-listed candidates for non-Permanent Secretary appointments.

The Government’s proposal was supported by the Institute for Government in a report (Permanent secretary appointments and the role of ministers‌) published in June 2013.  Its author, Akash Paun, noted that, in reality, Ministers already had a huge amount of influence but this was generally exercised informally and behind the scenes.

3.    THE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT

As summarised in the introduction to this note, Michael Gove was the one Conservative Cabinet Minister that appeared successful in working effectively with Chris Wormald, his Permanent Secretary in driving forward real change both within and outside his department.  The December 2012 Department for Education Review‌ is worth reading in full.  Although it contained some ridiculous management guff (“we will always have the right people in the right places at the right time”; “all our staff will be excellent”) it also recorded some very sensible decisions.  In particular, the Department undertook to

•    change ‘the way we work and in how we engage with Ministers’
•    carry out a thorough ‘stop work’ exercise
•    be better at prioritising and helping Ministers understand the impact of their policies.
•    take the time to get things right first time, reducing the need to firefight
•    reduce its corporate overhead … which is high when benchmarked against both the private sector and Government organisations
•    deliver a 50% reduction in administration costs between May 2010 and May 2015
•    ensure that by April 2013 around 30% of staff would be deployed flexibly.

But some decisions were worrying.  The review records that ‘Better decision making … means engaging Ministers earlier in the process – innovatively, using means that work for the particular Minsters we have – and using submissions to record decisions at the end of the process, rather than to drive the process of getting them’.  It is hard to see how this squares with being ‘better at helping Ministers understand the impact of their policies’, and – if pushed too far - it may even be incompatible with Ministers’ fundamental duty (in the Ministerial Code) to take advice from officials before making decisions.  The results of this novel approach were no doubt seen in all the Departmental announcements that were so heavily criticised by educationalists and which led to significant back-tracking in some areas.  The net result, however, was certainly much faster policy-making and implementation.

The next, the tenth note in this series continues to examine the debate, from 2013 onwards, about whether there should be an independent commission to review the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service.

 

Martin Stanley