Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Digested Read

Why the Civil Service is Failing – and What to do About it

Deborah Mabbett



| 8 mins read

The COVID-19 inquiry has given us a blow-by-blow account of a government in chaos as the pandemic struck. Attention has focused on the personal failings of key figures, with good reason. But the inquiry also offered compelling evidence that the working relationship between ministers and civil servants has become dysfunctional. Ministers are often disappointed with the quality of civil service advice and distrustful of officials’ intentions. Civil servants, for their part, are unable to stand up to behaviour by ministers that breaches established standards of propriety and codes of conduct.

Brexit played a part in this. Believing the civil service to be packed with Remain supporters, the government got into the habit of ignoring their advice in favour of its own magical thinking about how to achieve its goals. But alarm about the condition of the civil service predates Brexit. Successive reports of the Public Administration select committee in the early 2010s drew attention to the poor relationship between ministers and civil servants. The main reform adopted at that time was to make it easier for ministers to influence the appointment of permanent secretaries. Since 2013, new appointments have been on five year terms. Neither Johnson nor Truss showed any inclination to wait these out; conflicts have led quickly to the departure of the offending civil servant. Senior officials have rotated as fast as ministers in the turmoil of recent years.

How to compete with political appointees

Many worthy people have lamented the politicisation of the civil service. They fear that honest officials, willing to speak truth to power, have been superseded by yea-sayers and courtiers. But the reality is that civil servants are in a competition to be heard. If civil servants are not trusted, ministers can turn to their own advisers. These are actually better placed to give unwelcome advice, because they cannot so easily be ignored with the convenient assumption that they are not politically aligned.

Faced with this competition, civil servants have to think about how they might win it rather than suppressing it. Their comparative advantage lies in operational knowledge and institutional memory. They should be able to tell ministers what is needed to make a policy work with more authority than any outsider. To beat off critics who claim that they are inefficient and unwilling, they have to become good managers, and be able to demonstrate this. This means using the tools of formal monitoring and accepting the scrutiny which comes with them.

Taking responsibility

The senior echelons of the UK civil service are notoriously more interested in policy (giving advice) than administration (particularly if it is called ‘management’). One side-effect of this is their failure to embrace reform of the principle of ministerial responsibility, whereby the minister is supposed to be held accountable for everything that goes on in the department. Ministerial responsibility provides a pretext for political interference in civil service appointments. Ministers can argue that, given that they are held responsible, they should be able to replace officials who are, in their view, not performing adequately.

Senior civil servants should be held accountable for the effective management of their departments. They should be expected to exercise judgment and leadership, knowing that they will have to answer for failures. They have repeatedly rejected this, preferring to inhabit a shadowy world of intimacy with ministers. Both sides embrace secrecy: that’s one thing they can agree on. Rarely can the public find out who decided what and how. Accountability would have to mean publicity, acknowledging administrative failures but also identifying when policy decisions made by ministers have produced bad outcomes.

This is likely to mean that relationships between ministers and civil servants become tense and distant. Civil servants will demand clear statements of expectations and the opportunity to place on record their reservations. Formality and publicity are an unpleasant prospect for many incumbents. But the current arrangements are no match for some of the prime ministers and advisers of recent years. There is nowhere for civil servants to go in cases of ministerial malfeasance except through the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister. During the darkest days of Johnson’s premiership, civil servants discussed approaching the Queen with their concerns. The constitution is indeed in a desperate condition when the weekly chat between monarch and PM is seriously thought to be the way to uphold codes of conduct and counter unlawful abuses of due process.

Will Labour make a difference?

Change will come soon with a Labour government, but this will not bring back the powerful civil service of yesteryear. Labour will bring in its own policy advisers and they will make extensive use of policy ideas coming from outside the civil service. Civil servants will struggle to be heard, not least because many of them are so recently in post that they lack close knowledge of the departments they are leading. Indeed, Labour has recruited a number of former civil servants, killing off much of the residual comparative advantage of incumbents.

Labour could make some changes that would be positive for the civil service. To counter high turnover, competent officials should be offered posts leading projects where they have job security, subject to a managerial, rather than a political, assessment of their performance. To entrench change, Labour should strengthen the Civil Service Commission so that it is the employer of civil servants, not the prime minister of the day. The Commission will have to navigate ministerial discontents, but it should seek to resolve these with agreed statements of expectations rather than dismissals. It should also provide a venue where civil servants can take their concerns about malfeasance by ministers. An IPPR study found that a civil service reformed in this way would resemble those found in several countries that score better than the UK on public trust in the probity of government.

More accountability is the price that civil servants must pay to combat the real danger presented by politicisation. Civil servants must be able to act lawfully without political interference in a host of administrative processes, from deciding who should be awarded a contract to ensuring that money is spent in accordance with the budget approved by Parliament. Political interference in these processes is a path to corruption and the waste of public money. It used to be thought, rather complacently, that corruption and cronyism were not signal problems of British government, but no-one can think that now. These are the challenges that reform of the civil service must address.

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  • Deborah Mabbett

    Deborah Mabbett

    Deborah Mabbett is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. She is also Professor of Public Policy at Birkbeck, University of London.

    Articles by Deborah Mabbett