The Westminster Model - Comment & Criticism

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website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style.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:-

Within Whitehall:-

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:

And here are some extracts from Professor Anthony King’s  Who Governs Britain?

Professor Kakabadse says that:

Longer excerpts from these three academics’ writing are here.

Comment

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:

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.

Commentary

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.

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

  1. A rigid division of labor is established that clearly identifies regular tasks and duties of the particular bureaucratic system.
  2. Regulations describe firmly established chains of command and the duties and capacity to coerce others to comply.
  3. 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.

  1. Specialized roles
  2. Recruitment based on merit (e.g., tested through open competition)
  3. Uniform principles of placement, promotion, and transfer in an administrative system
  4. Careerism with systematic salary structure
  5. Hierarchy, responsibility and accountability
  6. Subjection of official conduct to strict rules of discipline and control
  7. Supremacy of abstract rules
  8. Impersonal authority (e.g., office bearer does not bring the office with him)
  9. Political neutrality

Benefits:-

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.

Disbenefits:-

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".

Martin Stanley

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