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The recent exposure of serious tensions between ministers and civil servants has once again highlighted this most sensitive of constitutional relationships. It follows hard on the heels of the fiasco surrounding the franchise award for the West Coast main line rail service, which will be long remembered in accounts of Whitehall failures.

Here were government ministers who provided false reassurances that the contract process had been conducted properly. The doctrine of ministerial responsibility will never look quite the same again. Nor will the doctrine of the non-accountability of civil servants.

The case raises questions about the capacity of civil servants, especially when departments are under staffing and resource pressures, to manage complex contracting matters when dealing with powerful and well-resourced private interests. It also raises questions about whether civil servants should have to account far more to Parliament and public for their actions and inactions rather than sheltering under the combined umbrella of the accounting officer role of permanent secretaries and the political accountability of ministers.

These are not straightforward issues, even if they might seem to be. Although ministerial responsibility may often be a fiction, glaringly so in the case of this rail franchise, it may nevertheless be a politically useful fiction. At least it enforces a brutal line of responsibility and keeps ministers on their toes. Similarly, the protection of civil servants from public and parliamentary scrutiny does underpin their disinterested service to ministers, without the defensive need to watch their own backs in case things go wrong and they get hung out to dry. Everyone might be in favour of accountability, but different kinds of accountability produce different kinds of behaviour, not all of which may be desirable in terms of good government.

This suggests the need for caution in overturning established relationships. But caution is not the same as inaction. The whole thrust of public administration in recent decades has been to move away from monolithic structures, define particular responsibilities more clearly and have more effective measures of performance (often linked to reward). It is consistent with this development that the traditional accountability relationship of civil servants should be reviewed. Those senior civil servants who preside over programmes and projects should expect to be held to account for their performance in a far more explicit and public way. If done sensibly, there is no reason why this should undermine ministerial responsibility or effective government. Indeed, it might enhance it.

This is a modest proposal, involving more holding to account of the most senior officials. There are those who want to go much further in shaking up the Civil Service, either by putting it on a contract basis with ministers or by importing politically appointed people to run it. There are good arguments behind both these propositions; but even better arguments against them. Such measures would alter the fundamental character of the Civil Service; whereas a modest increase of accountability would not (just as the arrival of special advisers has generally helped to protect the independence of the Civil Service rather than erode it).

When the Gladstonian reform of the Civil Service in the nineteenth century swept away patronage and established a system of appointment on merit there were twin objectives: first, to ensure propriety and, second, to promote efficient administration. The former objective is taken for granted but stands as a considerable achievement. It is central to the international reputation of the British Civil Service for disinterested administration, a beacon of integrity and bulwark against corruption.

A nice example of what this means is given by John Major who, in his memoirs, describes why he was sure that ministers were not implicated in the case of illegal arms sales to Iraq: ‘The main reason was that government simply does not work like that. The symbiotic relationship between ministers and civil servants, working along parallel lines of authority and accountability, does not permit such things to occur. If ministers had conspired to let innocent men go to prison the Whitehall machinery would have sounded the alarm, the Cabinet secretary would have been alerted, and he would have been in to see me immediately.’ The good reason for the politicisation of the Civil Service is the promise of dynamic commitment; but this is trumped by the better reason for maintaining an independent Civil Service, which is the maintenance of propriety.

The relationship with the other objective, that of efficient administration, has proved more contentious. It lies at the heart of recurrent tensions between ministers and civil servants. Ministers tend to think that civil servants are preoccupied with process rather than delivery; and civil servants tend to think that ministers are prone to cut corners and pursue unworkable policies. In many ways such tensions are necessary and beneficial. Keeping the ship of state afloat, and sailing it in a desired direction, are both required. Reforming governments in particular want the sailing to be more energetic and proficient, which is why they embark upon programmes of Civil Service reform. Thus Tony Blair’s conclusion that ‘the problem with the traditional civil service was not obstruction, but inertia’; and his belief that it needs ‘a totally different skill set today from thirty years ago, far more akin to that of the private sector’.

The Coalition government, led by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, has embarked on its own reform plan for the Civil Service. As well as the usual stuff about improving delivery skills, it had new ingredients. There would be more robust performance appraisal, more ‘contestable’ (in other words, bought-in) policy advice, more role for ministers in choosing permanent secretaries and more short-term contracts. The proposal about external policy advice is the most direct threat to a core Civil Service function. It threatens to deprive departments of institutional memory and policy capacity, both already weakened. And if externally contracted policy goes wrong, who is accountable then? Governments are right to want to make the Civil Service as efficient as it can be in meeting the challenge of new times. But this should not mean forgetting about babies and bath water.