The United Kingdom is a representative democracy. Arguably more than anywhere else in the world, the UK Parliament is central to the functioning of our democracy. Members of Parliament represent their constituents, by whom they are elected at least once every five years. They then enact laws and hold Ministers and officials to account. This section of this website describes and discusses the practical implications of this model for civil servants.
No employee - public or private sector - can expect to be allowed (publicly) to criticise his or her employer's policies. But civil servants aren't allowed to support them either! This is because the Government's policies might change overnight, whereupon previous support for policy A would overnight be transformed into criticism of policy B. Civil servants must therefore be politically impartial.
But Ministers want (or should want) honest advice, which may be critical of their policies. It follows that such advice needs to be delivered privately. As Dennis Grube has commented 'Policy advice given privately can always be seen as neutral, whereas all public statements will be read through whichever lens external observers which to use'. Civil servants must therefore be anonymous.
And it follows from both of the above that civil servants cannot be held accountable for the success or otherwise of government policy, for otherwise their public explanations could contain criticisms of their political masters.
This combination of officials' impartiality, anonymity and lack of accountability is known as the Westminster Model of Government. This is summarised here and described in more detail here. And accountability is discussed in more detail here.
But can this model of government possibly make sense in the 21st Century? There were critics even in the 19th Century. Sir James Stephen doubted that any bright individual would wish to pursue a career in which ... 'He must devote all his talents ... to measures, some of which he will assuredly disapprove, without having the slightest power to prevent them; and to some of which he will most essentially contribute, without having any share whatsoever in the credit bestowed on others, … and if any accident should make him notorious enough to become the suspected author of any unpopular act, he must silently submit to the reproach, even though it is totally unmerited by him'.
But Labour Cabinet Minister Barbara Castle commented as follows in 1974:
I wondered once again at the unique quality of the British civil service: the unique capacity of its top people to develop a genuine loyalty to a minister who wasn't here yesterday and will be gone tomorrow.
In 2016, Claire Foster-Gilbert, in her introduction to The Power of Civil Servants, notes that Ministers' inability to appoint their staff can seem ridiculous. 'Where else would you see an organisation in which those in charge have no power of appointment of those serving under them? How could their loyalty be secured? To others it is a safeguard against too much political (and inherently corrosive) power.'
And the 21st Century electorate clearly believe that ‘the Westminster Village’ is incompetent and/or out of touch with the concerns of those who live outside cosmopolitan London. Voters have not forgiven those responsible for the financial crisis, for growing income inequality, or for the Iraq war. And those who have read Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope’s Conundrum, and/or Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s The Blunders of Our Governments, have plenty more ammunition, dating back to the Poll Tax and before. But it is not only politicians who live in the Westminster Village. Is it not time that officials became more accountable for their actions – or lack of them? There are, after all, about 40 times as many senior officials as there are Ministers. Some of them were intimately involved in the ineffective planning, in ignoring the warnings, and in delivering the faulty policies. Surely they cannot avoid taking some of the blame?
These issues are explored in the following web pages:
- Explanations and analyses of various attempts at Civil Service Reform.
- A note summarising recent examples of public servants commenting on the merits of public policies.
- A February 2015 blog 'Should the Civil Service be More Accountable to Parliament and the Public?'
- Impartiality: Some practical advice.
- Scientific advisers are even more caught up in Sir James Stephen's dilemma as they are generally more certain of the accuracy of their advice: see my March 2015 blog "Why do Politicians sometimes Ignore Scientific Advice?'
- The Public Administration Select Committee investigated Nick Macpherson's attack on the SNP's policies and concluded 'that Sir Nicholas Macpherson’s advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants. It remains the view of this Committee that Civil Service advice should remain protected. The decision to publish will have unintended consequences for advice given to ministers on future major issues—including referendums. We invite the Government to make it clear in its response to this report that the publication of advice to ministers will never recur.' The full report is here.
- Finally, here are the rules which govern officials' behaviour in the weeks before General Elections.