General & Political Impartiality

This note gives practical advice to UK civil servants who are required to be strictly impartial in the way in which they carry out their day-to-day duties, and who must in particular remain politically impartial.

Further information about the constitutional position of UK civil servants may be found in the Westminster Model area of this website.

The Civil Service Code says this on impartiality:

You must: carry out your responsibilities in a way that is fair, just and equitable and reflects the Civil Service commitment to equality and diversity.

You must not: act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.

But - and it's a big 'But' - civil servants are not totally impartial when serving the Government of the day.  Parties in government are always better served than parties out of government. The civil service advises Ministers on how best to present their policies, helps them avoid or respond to attacks, and (under the Osmotherly Rules) they can provide only selective information to Select Committees.

Here is some practical advice to supplement the above instructions.

Equality of Treatment

The public expect both Ministers and their officials to deal equally with everyone, and with every organisation, without prejudice, favour or disfavour. This simple but vital concept has a number of useful consequences.

First, it enables you to ask appropriate questions, however grand the person or organisation with which you are dealing. For instance, an enquiry into the financial standing of a multinational can often be less rigorous than a similar enquiry of a small firm. But large firms and substantial charities can go bust (remember Kids Company), so you should never take anything for granted. Ask a carefully targeted question and then decide whether further questions are necessary. Take particular care if you have heard a critical rumour or comment. There can be smoke without fire, but the two are usually closely associated.

Second, it is your defence against the senior or public figure who might otherwise expect you to give them priority, or rubber stamp some sort of application. You must never allow queue-jumping, nor must you ever refrain from asking a pertinent question, whoever you are dealing with. (It is of course perfectly reasonable to ‘fast track’ some work for a senior person who has a genuine need for it to be done quickly. But you must be sure that you would do the same for anyone else with a similar need, and that they are not jumping ahead of someone whose needs are just as great, but who is less well connected.)

Incidentally, the vast majority of senior/public figures understand perfectly well that they have to receive the same treatment as everyone else. If they get stroppy then (a) they believe that everyone should be receiving better treatment (if they are right then you should improve the service to everyone), or (b) they are trying to hide something (never allow yourself to be bullied into dropping a potentially important line of questioning), or (c) they are simply pompous (in which case don’t favour them, but don’t set out to punish them either).

Third, it is your defence against anyone, including journalists, who might ask you to give them advice and information that you have not given to others. If possible, of course, you should be free with information But there are no circumstances in which you should give information or advice to one person that you would not give to anyone else that asked a similar question.

Political Impartiality

The Civil Service Code‌ says the following on the need for political impartiality:

You must:

You must not:

Let me add some detail:-

The civil service is required to be politically impartial, and able loyally and with equal commitment to serve Governments of all political persuasions. This means that:

It can be very hard to follow the above advice, for it can make you seem quite unenthusiastic about your Minister's policies. It can be even harder when a Minister or Special Adviser does not share your view of the borderline between ‘explaining’ a policy and ‘defending’ it.  See further below for advice on tweets.

It is even more difficult if you strongly support – or strongly object to – decisions that have been made, or might be made, by Ministers. It is not always possible to hide those views from colleagues, and it is sometimes difficult to hide them from those outside the Government with whom you come into frequent contact. But it is absolutely essential that you give no sign that you oppose the principles and underlying thrust of the Government’s policies, nor must you suggest that you do not respect your Minister.

And it can be tricky to follow the above advice where minor decisions are concerned. (‘Of course I will try to get him to open your conference. It’s an important occasion’). But you will learn from bitter experience that the advice is sensible, for it is embarrassing all round when the Minister refuses to do what you suggest. There is, I am afraid, no alternative to sounding rather pathetic and merely promising that the case will be put to the Minister, adding that you cannot predict the result. Quite simply, it should never be possible for anyone to be able to criticise Ministers for failing to take your advice. And it is even more important that incoming Ministers should be unaware of the extent or otherwise of your personal support for their predecessors’ policies.

Equally, you may not be asked to engage in activities which call into question your political impartiality, or which give rise to criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. You may not, of course, engage in political activities. And you may not help draft ‘Dear Colleague’ letters unless they are to be sent to all MPs. You are, however, allowed to provide Ministers with facts which might be used in political speeches etc., and you are allowed to check Ministers’ political speeches for factual accuracy. You are also allowed to comment on the analysis, costings and proposals contained in documents produced by political organisations, including the Opposition, but you must not draft Ministers’ responses to such documents.

You may not brief an MP (including from the Government party) or agree that an MP may visit a Government office etc. without Ministerial approval. Ministers will usually agree to factual or uncontroversial briefings and visits, but they sometimes want to get involved themselves, in which case any meeting or visit has to be arranged at a time convenient for both the Minister and the MP.

For the avoidance of doubt, however, you are expected to take politics into account when giving private advice to Ministers, and you are expected to help Ministers defend their policies, once they have made their decisions, even if you don't agree with them. 

If you want a historical example, Claire Tomalin tells this nice tale in her biography of Samuel Pepys:

Pepys knew perfectly well [that the war] had been badly managed, but he was bound to defend the Navy Office; and, in making the case for the defence, he was effectively defending the king and his policy also, which he had deplored in private so often.  He carried out his difficult task with admirable skill.  He was not required to be sincere.

This comment by Minister Nick Harvey is sensible: 'One way that some submissions could be improved would be to ensure that those writing briefs stand back and think about putting their advice into a political context. Sometimes the advice strives so hard to be objective that it becomes unworldly. I was not looking for politically biased advice but I did want advice that was politically aware: political neutrality was fine, but political naivety was unhelpful.'

It is usual, of course, for incoming Ministers to suspect that you secretly support the Opposition. Barbara Hosking, in Exceeding My Brief, recounts a number of examples. (Barbara had been a Labour Councillor in Islington and had worked for the Labour Party in Transport House before working very closely effectively for both Labour's Harold Wilson and Conservative Ted Heath in 10 Downing Street.) She often quoted the example of an ex-Army Information Officer 'who was extremely right wing, anti-union, anti-Semitic, a horror.  His Minister was [hard left] Tony Benn and he worked flat out for him.'

(The above rules do rather break down, though, under the intense pressure experienced by those working in No.10 Downing Street. Senior staff in the Prime Minister's office need to tread a fine line between serving the Prime Minister and remaining remote from the business of party leader. Private Secretaries, Press Secretaries and others inevitably have to take strong lines when communicating both inside and outside Whitehall so as to ensure that the PM's political priorities are firmly embedded in everything they say and do. This includes drafting speeches and press notices.

Robin Butler was quite candid, when briefing his biographer, about his deep involvement in writing speeches for Mrs Thatcher when he was her Principal Private Secretary. He even wrote in a personal capacity, offering her handling advice during the Westland crisis, after he had returned to the Treasury. But he didn't go so far as Charles Powell, another Private Secretary, who became far too closely associated with Mrs Thatcher and eventually could not (and did not want to) return to his civil service career.

On the other hand The Guardian once 'revealed' that Press Secretary and civil servant Bernard Ingham had advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that her first media priority was to "look after the Daily Mail"- despite (the Guardian said) neutrality rules that banned him from doing so. The Guardian was wrong. (Now) Sir Bernard gave perfectly sensible private advice and could have given similar advice to a Labour Minister - although possibly mentioning another paper.)

Click here for advice on how to behave in the weeks before General Elections and national referendums.

Tweets

The increasing use of Twitter in and around 2020 and the increasingly febrile political atmosphere caused by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic meant that departments' communications teams came under pressure to publish misleading information via social media, and in particular via Twitter.  Each incident was minor itself but one example was a tweet in October 2020 in which the Department for International Trade claimed that a trade deal with Japan had reduced the price of soya (sic) sauce.  The deal had in fact done no more than role over existing zero tariffs that had been negotiated by the EI.  What the department meant top say was that, absent the new agreement, tariffs would increase in the following January if the Brexit transition period ended without a new trade deal. 

This tweet appeared to be a clear example of a press officer choosing (or being forced) to breach a clear ethical boundary and attracted a good deal of attention - in Twitter at least.  The IfG's Alex Thomas summarised the problem very well in a blog which I repeat at the bottom of this web page.  His main point, though, was that ministers 'need the media and the public to trust what the government is saying, especially during a pandemic when effective and honest communication is the most important weapon the government has against the disease. That is not worth sacrificing for any fleeting media hit.'

Violations?

I was once asked whether there were any legal cases of other examples of civil servants' violation of political impartiality.  Here is my reply:

You ask a interesting question.  The short answer is that I am not aware of any post-war examples of senior UK civil servants being disciplined for undertaking political activities.  The simple reason is that we are almost all concentrated in London and so any such activity would immediately be detected and stopped - so nobody does it, even if they wanted to.  In addition, of course, almost all senior officials are perfectly happy being apolitical and have no wish to undertake political activities.

There have been examples of officials realising that they have developed such strong political views and/or such strong attachment to a politician boss that they cannot remain in an apolitical profession.  Two that come to mind are Charles Powell who was very close to Margaret Thatcher, and Andrew Lansley who eventually became a prominent politician and Health Secretary.

And there have been quite a few fairly muted criticisms of officials who have appeared too free with their views on policy issues and/or over enthusiastic in their defence of government policies.  They are listed here.

Middle-ranking and junior officials are allowed to undertake political activities, of course.  It is only those who work closely with Ministers that need to appear to be apolitical.

But also see the rather special case of Paula Walters, discussed here.

And finally ...

... I quite like this Civil Service World summary of comments made in late 2019 by ex-Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell:

Using the example of rugby referee Nigel Owens, Lord O’Donnell made clear that “the job of the civil servant is to be impartial, but not neutral”, which is an important distinction. While a referee would not “take sides”, it is also “massively important that they are absolutely firm about the way the rules are conducted”. In a similar vein, while civil servants “are of course politically impartial,” they also “need to take sides on policy issues”. “Our job is to apply honesty and objectivity to come up with clear policy recommendations,” he added. 

But why is this impartiality so important? According to Lord O’Donnell, there are seven key reasons:

  1. Impartiality allows for continuity across changes of administration.
  2. Impartiality is a bastion against confirmation bias.
  3. Impartiality builds mutual trust between civil servants and ministers, which is vital if they are to work effectively together.
  4. Impartiality enables the civil service to build long-terms relationships with businesses, trade unions, the monarchy, the judiciary and other institutions.
  5. Many civil servants operate in delivery bodies, so if their senior personnel were to change every time there's a change of administration, it would damage their effectiveness.
  6. Impartiality makes the civil service a much more attractive career.
  7. Impartiality leads to better decisions, as it ensures ministers are surrounded with people who are not necessarily yes men and women.

Government Communications:  Alex Thomas' Blog

The civil servant responsible for the Department for International Trade’s twitter account might in future pause before mixing baking and government messaging. As many trade experts rapidly pointed out, the department’s claim on Twitter, sent out during an episode of The Great British Bake Off, that soy sauce “will be made cheaper thanks to our trade deal with Japan” was not accurate. The following day, DIT issued a convoluted clarification that it “will be cheaper than it otherwise would be under WTO terms, on which we would be trading with Japan from 1 Jan if we had not secured the UK-Japan trade deal”.

The soya social media flurry was a trivial incident in itself, but it was the latest in a line of misleading messages from departmental twitter accounts. In August Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, publicly accepted that the description of “activist lawyers” who were trying to “delay and disrupt returns” of migrants should not have been tweeted from the Home Office account. The Northern Ireland Office, meanwhile, continues to maintain its assertion that “there will be no border in the Irish Sea between GB & NI”, convincing no-one of anything except an ability to dance on semantic pinheads, and despite officials on both sides of the Irish Sea working hard to implement an array of the checks necessary to cross what becomes a trade border between GB and the EU.

This increasing abuse of official communications is a problem which needs to be addressed.

Civil service and special adviser codes require honest communication

These accounts are funded by the taxpayer for the purpose of informing the public – not misleading them. The civil service code requires civil servants to “set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully” and not to “deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others” – and that applies to their special adviser colleagues as well. The professional standards for communications specialists are even more explicit, requiring messages to be “objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical”. If government cannot meet these standards when trying to do fast paced communication, it needs to hold off, not lower the standards.  

It is the art of government press officers to simplify complex policies and concepts into material that is more easily accessed by the media and public. There is no bar to those messages presenting the government’s plans positively, indeed a lot of effort goes into finding the best way of presenting material to put the government in the best light. But there is a world of difference between a legitimate gloss and deliberately misleading the public. Communications directors and their permanent secretaries need to police that boundary in all our interests. 

Government needs to ensure its sign off processes prevent misleading messages

Formal public government statements or quotes are almost always written by committee, with at least three contributors: a policy expert, a press officer and a minister (or more often a special adviser delegated to act on the minister’s behalf). In general, the more controversial or novel the issue, the more senior the clearance required. This can be clunky and results in frantic late night email chains when an unexpected story breaks, but it gives the government a good chance to ensure that messages are accurate, intelligible and in line with its political and wider policy approach.

Something seems to be going wrong with this protocol. Perhaps it is the speed of social media and the desire of civil service communications teams to be pacy, informal and relevant that means checks are getting missed. Or perhaps it is a more conscious attempt by ministers and their advisers to test the boundaries, stir up controversies and turn official government outlets into campaigning tools.

Either way, it is permanent secretaries, as the most senior civil servants in their departments and the guardians of their teams’ propriety and ethics standards, who need to enforce a sign off process, even for seemingly innocuous tweets about condiments. 

Government will be less effective if it is seen as serially untrustworthy

This government has decided to centralise its communications. In theory this is a perfect opportunity to enforce a streamlined but authoritative accuracy and propriety check. More likely it will mean official messaging being further removed from the policy experts, and nearer to a No.10 communications operation that has not stood out for its reverence for the facts.

It is in ministers’ own interest to act to keep this tendency in check. They need the media and the public to trust what the government is saying, especially during a pandemic when effective and honest communication is the most important weapon the government has against the disease. That is not worth sacrificing for any fleeting media hit.

 

Martin Stanley

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