The World has changed a lot over the last few decades, and Whitehall has changed with it. The consultation page of my Understanding Policy Making website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style. These developments have arguably meant that it is now more difficult for Ministers to accept advice from senior civil servants. Several commentators have gone so far as to accuse the modern Senior Civil Service of acting more like courtiers - compared with their predecessors at least.
Here are what some senior officials and others have said to me:-
In wider society:-
- Public and media have become much less deferential over several generations. This a good thing but Ministers have responded by requiring Whitehall to become much more defensive, less open to considered criticism, and less willing to consider options before reaching policy conclusions.
- Freedom of Information has accordingly become seen as a threat instead of a codification of what should be done naturally.
- The media – including social media – are now so massive that government has to put a lot more effort into communications activity – but, even so, we all know that a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on. Government pronouncements are therefore often rushed, and lack subtlety and accuracy.
- Globalisation, immigration and membership of the EU also mean that the government’s audience is much more varied than in the past. This exposure to other cultures has many advantages but poses problems for the government’s communications teams.
- And there is some evidence that society is becoming more polarised, which can lead to ignorance & cognitive dissonance on both sides of the arguments.
- Prosperity has generated a number of ‘wicked policy issues’ as we have more to spend on food, drugs and alcohol – and on mobile phones and other consumer goods that are so tempting for the criminally minded.
- Ministers don't understand implications of the cuts in staff numbers that they order. The resultant loss of experience will mean that they will not have Civil Service support when they need it, nor of the experience/quality that they need.
- Senior officials in particular are now over-stretched, and have little time for getting out and understanding the policy areas and sectors within which they work.
- Civil servants have learned that there is little point in challenging major decisions, however, short-sighted. They instead focus on controlling the (devil in) the detail.
- The market-based approach to appointments led to greater turbulence and less depth of knowledge.
- HMG in many areas no longer acts as a supplier; it instead buys services from and for others. But its procurement and negotiations skills are still pretty weak, and its lawyers are too often out-gunned by their expensive heavyweight private sector opponents.
- ‘Fast stream’ recruits no longer have a career anchor/home department – they are all nominally employed by HMRC - and their 6 month appointments, rotating around departments, mean they can't gain a deep understanding of any one department’s issues, nor gain experience in a Minister’s Private Office.
- Senior officials are seen as too keen to suck up to Ministers. Even the Head of the Civil Service & Cabinet Secretary now sends out tweets drawing attention to ‘good news’ such as low unemployment rates, “tough new measures to tackle tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance” and the “historic visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to UK which secures $100bn of long term mutual investment, drawing on UK world leading expertise in health, education, finance.” If there is any bad news, it doesn’t feature in his Twitter feed!
It may seem over sensitive to draw attention to such tweets, or to this one. The Minister - Matt Hancock - was, after all, talking about building a better government machine and could reasonably expect officials to welcome it. But what if his speech had included plans which the Cabinet Secretary had opposed? Would Sir Jeremy have declined to issue supportive comment, and would the absence of such comment draw attention to the rift between Minister and officials? It would be better, I think, to issue factual press releases summarising what Ministers are aiming to achieve, rather than expect senior officials to praise every Ministerial pronouncement or - even worse - just some of them.
Maybe some of the above criticisms are over-blown, but they are echoed by academic commentators:-
Professor Jeremy Richardson makes these points:
- There have been important changes within government departments, namely a change in the balance of power between senior civil servants on the one hand, and Ministers and their Special Advisers on the other.
- Many ministers (and their external advisers, both official and informal) arrive in office with a thorough knowledge of their policy portfolio and their own strong priorities on what policy change is needed. This has led to a shift from civil servants warning ministers and keeping them out of trouble, reflecting the traditional risk aversion normally attributed to British government, towards ‘carriers’ of ministerial ideas, willing to try to implement policies even when lacking broad policy community support.
- There are big risks inherent in the new policy style under which consultation is much more constrained.
- Professor Richardson quotes David Halpern (Head of Number 10’s Behavioural Insights Team) as describing life behind the shiny black door of Number 10 as akin to a hospital Accident & Emergency Department:- ‘in such a world, there’s often not the time, nor the patience, for the answer to be “more research needed”’ There is more than a hint here of a ‘pop-up’ style of policymaking where chaps (mostly!) with seemingly clever policy ideas get to implement them without the need to consider the views of, or seek the support of, the affected interests.
And here are some extracts from Professor Anthony King’s Who Governs Britain?
- Ministers now] believe … that if they are to impress … they must constantly be seen to be taking initiatives [and] if change is desirable … then it is desirable now not at some unspecified time in the future ... Post-Thatcher ministers are characterised by their impatience. [They] have no incentive at all to think about the longer term future.
- The traditional British civil service … was dynamic. Generations of senior civil servants regarded it as part of their mission … to promote causes.
- [The post-Thatcher] change of role meant a corresponding change in the role and mind-set of officials. From now on, officials were to be civil servants in reality, at their master’s beck and call, eager to do their master’s bidding. … By the time New Labour came to power in 1997, there were few if any of the old style mandarins still in place.
- Many ministers, with much expected of them and suspicious of their officials, turned for help and advice to … special advisers … and … think tanks.
- More than two decades after the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the vast majority of officials, including the most senior, give the impression of having settled into their new, more subordinate role. … … “We wanted”, one of them said, “to avoid a Sir Humphrey image. We became afraid to say “No, Minister”. [Another said …] “Can-do man was in and wait-a-minute man was out.
- … officials, once the embodiments of departmental continuity, are now at least as transient as their political masters and therefore at least as liable not to have a very firm grasp of what they are doing.
- [A cabinet minister complained] that his own department’s collective memory was so short … that “… people deal only with the instant they are living in, rather than drawing on any kind of history or knowledge of the detail and background to a particular issue.”
Professor Kakabadse says that:
- [Senior] civil servants admit to misunderstandings, misjudgements, feeling inhibited to speak up and, in certain circumstances and with particular Secretaries of State, not knowing how to speak truth to power.
- Even middle-ranking and more junior civil servants described feeling defensive and reluctant to offer opinion, fearing reprimand or being viewed in a negative light.
The extent and nature of the above lists no doubt contribute to the caution of senior civil servants, even though our personal accountability is pretty limited. But it is worth pointing out that (with the exception of civil service lawyers', doctors' etc. professional bodies) none of the bodies to whom we are accountable can actually discipline or dismiss us. Their power is merely to criticise and shame us.
But this shaming power is only effective if the audience that hears the criticism believes that blame has been fairly allocated. MPs too often appear to cross-examine officials in unfair or unreasonable ways, or seek to criticise officials when they cannot get at responsible Ministers, or at responsible civil servants. Such behaviour certainly catches the attention of Whitehall - and the resultant video gets widely shown - but the victims usually receive considerable sympathy and their 'accountability' leads neither to career detriment nor to any change in the behaviour of the victims or others.
The power of accountability is also ineffective when a civil servant simply does not care about the rules, and either believes that they will get away with it, or does not fear the consequences if they are caught out. The essential safeguard in these circumstances is the audit process backed up by effective management - backed up by careful selection processes when senior civil servants are appointed from outside the Service. The Civil Service itself, and the Civil Service Commissioners, are thus themselves an integral part of the structure of accountability.
It is often argued that government would be more efficient and effective if civil servants were better at 'speaking truth to power', backed up by greater accountability to Parliament. These issues are explored:
- in this webpage:- "Should Civil Servants Face Greater Scrutiny?"
- in the Speaking Truth to Power section of my Understanding Policy Making website, and in particular:
- in my web page: The Westminster Model - Recent Developments
They were also explored in the 2018 IfG report Accountability in Modern Government which noted 'fundamental gaps in accountability at the heart of Whitehall', the failure by successive administrations to 'ensure that accountability has kept pace with the increasing complexity of modern government', and that 'accountability is too focused on blame, when it needs to focus on improvement'. The report made a number of sensible, if hardly new or radical recommendation but it did not seem likely that anyone in government would listen, unless and until accountability is looked at within a wider attempt at civil service reform.
One commentator noted - I suspect correctly - that the combination of privatisation and the delegation of considerable power to regulators had probably allowed Ministers to survive or even resist pressure to be much more accountable than they had recently shown themselves willing to be.
It should be noted that the Westminster Model is predicated on the view that 'Government knows best'. It assumes that the public does not have the information necessary to make the right decisions. Some commentators go further and argue that the political elite regard secrecy as the best means of ensuring that the right decisions are made in the interests of the people. A responsible government is accordingly able to take strong decisive action, even when opposed by a majority of the population. This is a leadership rather than participatory view of democracy, but it is legitimised by regular democratic elections, when representatives can be held to account for their decisions.
The Haldane Model, furthermore, encourages concentration of power at heart of the British political system and "Government by the elite". This concentration of power, together with the interdependence of Ministers and officials, means that senior civil servants can be quite powerful whilst simultaneously maintaining the polite fiction they are "only advisers". And politicians can, at the same time, continue to maintain that they are really taking all the decisions. In practice, of course, the relative power and influence of senior officials varies very much from Government to Government, and with the characters and experience of the officials and their Ministers. But critics argue that the Westminster/Haldane model is in effect a facade which works to the benefit of both politicians and civil servants, but which disguises the truth from the population at large.
Whether or not this was so, there was a pretty clear trend throughout the 1900s for 'Westminster knows best' to give way to a more consultative and collaborative style of government. But the consultation page of my Understanding Policy Making website notes increasing concern that this trend has gone sharply into reverse, and that UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style. These developments have in turn affected the balance of power between senior officials and Minsters. See my notes on civil service reform for further detailed discussion of these trends.
An excellent summary of the constitutional development of the UK Civil Service through to 1997 may be found in Michael Duggett's paper The Evolution of the UK Civil Service.
It is also worth noting that the civil service conforms pretty well to Max Weber's Rational-Legal Model of bureaucracy, with consequential benefits and disbenefits. Further detail is in the Annex below.
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?
Annex - Max Weber's Bureaucratic Model
Max Weber's bureaucratic theory or model is sometimes also known as the rational-legal model. It is based on the general principle of precisely defined and organized across-the-board competencies of the various offices. These competencies are underpinned by rules, laws, and/or administrative regulations. For Weber, this means
- A rigid division of labor is established that clearly identifies regular tasks and duties of the particular bureaucratic system.
- Regulations describe firmly established chains of command and the duties and capacity to coerce others to comply.
- Hiring people with particular, certified qualifications supports regular and continuous execution of the assigned duties.
Weber notes that these three aspects "...constitute the essence of bureaucratic administration ... in the public sector. In the private sector, these three aspects constitute the essence of a bureaucratic management of a private company."
The model goes on to identify nine principles or characteristics of the bureaucratic model.
- Specialized roles
- Recruitment based on merit (e.g., tested through open competition)
- Uniform principles of placement, promotion, and transfer in an administrative system
- Careerism with systematic salary structure
- Hierarchy, responsibility and accountability
- Subjection of official conduct to strict rules of discipline and control
- Supremacy of abstract rules
- Impersonal authority (e.g., office bearer does not bring the office with him)
- Political neutrality
Weber recognised that real bureaucracy is less optimal and effective than his ideal model. Each of Weber's principles can degenerate. However, when implemented in a group setting in an organization, real efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved, especially with regard to better output. This is especially true if the implementation successfully focuses on qualifications (merits), specialization of roles, hierarchy of power, rules and discipline.
- Competencies, efficiency and effectiveness can be unclear and contradictory, especially when dealing with oversimplified matters.
- Bureaucracies can become dehumanized and inflexible. If every worker has to specialize from day one (without rotating tasks for fear of decreasing output) tasks are often routine and can contribute to boredom. Employees can then sometimes feel that they are not part of the organization's work vision and missions.
- Employees can consequently, over time, lose their sense of belonging.
- And bureaucratic organisations can both exploit and underestimate the potential of their employees, as creativity is brushed aside in favour of strict adherence to rules, regulations and procedures.
Weber recognised that individual bureaucrats can wield power, but the job normally imposes constraints. According to Weber, the bureaucrat "is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march. The official is entrusted with specialized tasks, and normally the mechanism cannot be put in motion or arrested by him, but only from the very top".